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WATSO FAMILY AT LAKE GEORGE
Lake George has always been a place where the Wabanaki People visited from one side of the border to the other and a while back, we had the good fortune to see both the beautiful lake area and a demonstration of Black Ash Basket making by the Watso family of Odanak.
Black Ash grows in layers which when pounded will separate into rough strips. These strips are refined and cut until they can be made into beautiful and useful baskets. Because of the lack of black ash trees and the amount of work involved in making these baskets there are fewer and fewer artisans making them. Thankfully, there are still some to hand down the art to those who are interested.
Years ago, the Wabanaki people were well known for their baskets and continue to be so today. Most of the basket makers reside in Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine where the resources are still available.
My husband and I had the pleasure of visiting Lake George to see the Watso family demonstrating this fine art. After watching the men beating the logs in rythm and the women pulling the splints to make them thinner, we found renewed respect for those who do the work.
We were amazed at the strength required to pull these strips through the planers and dividers. This matriarch continues to create beautiful items but stated that her age is beginning to take tole on her hands and she worried about how much longer she would be able to make them. At times like these we realize the value of Elders of the community and can only hope some younger people will take interest before the craft disappears.
My husband and I both watched in amazement as two young men beat the log (rear) with mallets, striking in perfect rotation until the log gave up its rough strips. Then, using another stripper, the men did the first thinning of the strips to prepare them for the women.
Here you can see some of the strips. Notice that there are different widths. After they come from the men, the women slice them down to the widths they want to use and again put them through a shaver to thin them even more.
Originally, baskets were made "free hand", but as the production of baskets became more of a business for Wabanaki women selling to the tourist and neighboring farm women, molds were designed to keep the sizes consistent and easily repeated.
There are stories of Wabanaki women working on baskets all winter and taking huge bundles of them on their backs to set out selling their wares to non-native customers. It is said they would not return until they had sold all that they carried, sometimes being away from their homes for several days. And what was the price for their hard work? Often, one dollar a basket!
In this photo you can see a basket in progress on one of the wooden molds which were handed down from mother to daughter over generations.
I am proud to say that I now own this beautiful basket shown above. And I hold a much higher respect for baskets in general knowing how much it was/is a part of the Wabanaki culture.
No. I am not crying. LOL The sun was very bright that day and as I moved about taking to people such as Denise Watso (above in purple shirt), my husband kept taking photos catching me in very strange expressions. The day was great, the people friendly and the landscape gorgeous.
While we are not able to travel much anymore, I am always thankful to get to see some of our culture in action and to meet Wabanaki from both the US and Canada. After all, we were once all one extended family. Only the borders have come between.
One of these days it would be nice to go back and take this cruise around the lake. Maybe I can convince them to change the name of the boat.
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