Braiding Sweetgrass

(Grace) #1

new wood and passes it around for us all to see. John coils it into a
neat hoop, ties it fast, and hangs it on a nearby tree branch. “Your
turn,” he says and hands off the ax.
My teacher this warm summer day is John Pigeon, a member of
the large, renowned Pigeon family of Potawatomi basket makers.
Since that first initiation to pounding a log, I’m grateful to have sat
in on black ash basket classes with several generations of the
extended family of Pigeons—Steve, Kitt, Ed, Stephanie, Pearl,
Angie, and more, children and grandchildren—with splints in their
hands. All gifted basket makers, carriers of culture, and generous
teachers. The log is a good teacher, too.
It’s harder than it looks, making the ax repeat its pattern evenly
down the log. Too much impact in one spot will break the fibers; too
little and the strip won’t fully break free, leaving a thin spot. Each of
us beginners works differently, some with sharp strokes from
overhead, some with dull thudding as if we were hammering nails.
The sound changes with the pounder: a high ringing note like the
call of wild geese, a bark like a startled coyote’s, the muffled
thumping of a drumming grouse.
When John was a kid the sound of log pounding was heard all
through the community. Walking home from school, he could tell
who was out working by the sound of their swing. Uncle Chester
was a hard, fast crack, crack, crack. From across the hedgerow he
could hear Grandma Bell’s slow thuds separated by long pauses
while she caught her breath. But now the village grows quieter and
quieter as elders walk on and kids seem more interested in video
games than in tromping through the swamp. So John Pigeon
teaches any who will come, to pass on what he’s learned from his
elders and the trees.
John is both a master basket maker and a carrier of tradition.

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