Black Ash Basketry

Fancy baskets for sale made by indigenous basket makers. Photo by Les Benedict

Black ash is a cultural keystone species for many Native American and First Nations tribes within the species range.1,2 Because of its mechanical properties, black ash has long been prized as the source of the thin pliable splints that are woven into baskets.3 Weaving baskets made from black ash is an integral part of the traditions and identify for many Indigenous families. Spiritual ties to black ash exist amongst many Indigenous peoples, including the species' key role in a Wabanaki creation story.1

A pack basket made from black ash. Basket and photo by Angello Johnson, Akwesasne

Making a black ash basket is a laborious process that begins with visiting a black ash stand to select a suitable tree. Sites that are not too wet, but not too dry often produce the ideal conditions for basketmaking trees.1,3,4 When evaluating a potential tree, a basketmaker will use an axe to cut a notch out from the lower portion of the trunk, to assess the width of the growth rings. Typically, basketmakers desire trees with rings that are approximately 3-5 mm in width1,2. If the rings fit this requirement, the basketmaker will fell the tree, remove the limbs and top, then haul the log(s) out of the woods, usually in 8-10 ft sections.

A black ash tree that exhibits proper growth for basketry, recently cut for basket making. Photo by River Mathieu, MSU

Basketmakers peel the bark from the log with drawknives, exposing the sapwood. Logs are then pounded with an axe or mallet, which causes the annual growth rings to separate. These are scored, creating thin, pliable splints that are further shaved and smoothed. Splints are trimmed into the desired width and length for weaving baskets of various sizes and shapes. Black ash baskets are generally either utilitarian baskets or fancy baskets. Utilitarian baskets range from large backpack style baskets to baskets designed specifically for washing corn to smaller baskets for holding loose change. Fancy baskets are more ornate and may have dyed splints or objects woven into the basket. These fancy baskets allow artists to express themselves and tell stories through their art.

Hope Despite Emerald Ash Borer

Les Benedict collects seeds from a black ash in northern NY. Photo by Nate Siegert, USFS

Emerald ash borer poses a significant threat to black ash and the traditions surrounding black ash are at risk of being loss along with this prolific tree. As EAB spreads and black ash trees die, it becomes more and more difficult for tribal elders and basketmakers to pass on the skills and knowledge required for black ash basketry to younger generations. Many indigenous basket makers, however, are hopeful that basketry traditions will continue. For example, members of many Native American tribes have collected black ash seeds for years. These seeds are saved, either by the Tribes or in collaboration with federal agencies, to conserve genetic diversity for future reforestation efforts. Some Tribes are taking a more active approach to managing black ash resources on their lands. For example, multiple Tribes, including the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne federally recognized as the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, have collaborated with federal partners to treat hundreds of black ash with highly effective systemic insecticides. These insecticides are delivered directly into the trees, minimizing any environmental exposure. They have also participated in classical biological control efforts by releasing parasitoids, tiny wasps that attack EAB larvae under the bark. These natural enemies are not affected by systemic insecticides and the combination of the two tactics may help some black ash trees survive EAB invasion.

Black ash splints, shown in bundles here, can be stored for use in the future. A potential short-term solution to the loss of black ash. Photo by Angello Johnson, Akwesasne

Les Benedict, Assistant Director of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division and Black ash Coordinator for the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, believes that EAB won’t cause the end of Indigenous basketry traditions. He suggests that the loss of black ash will push basketmakers to explore other types of trees to use in basket making. Additionally, he reserves hope that preservation and research efforts will help to ensure that black ash still exists in the future. Renee Dillard (Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians) and Kelly Church (Gun Lake Band Potawatomi, Grand Traverse Band Ottawa Chippewa), both indigenous basket makers, express similar hopes, and work tirelessly to teach basketmaking to others in their communities and raise awareness about EAB and the threat that the invasive forest pests pose to indigenous culture.

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Page References

  1. Costanza, K. K. L., Livingston, W. H., Kashian, D. M., Slesak, R. A., Tardif, J. C., Dech, J. P., et al. 2017. The precarious state of a cultural keystone species: Tribal and biological assessments of the role and future of black ash. J. For. 115(5). 435-446. doi:10.5849/jof.2016-034R1
  2. Diamond, A. K., & Emery, M. R. 2011. Black ash (Fraxinus nigra Marsh.): Local ecological knowledge of site characteristics and morphology associated with basket-grade specimens in New England (USA). Econ. Bot. 65(4). 422-426. doi:10.1007/s12231-011-9174-z
  3. Benedict, L., & David R. 2004. Handbook for black ash preservation reforestation/regeneration. Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, Department of the Environment.
  4. Benedict, M. A., & Frelich, L. E. 2008. Site factors affecting black ash ring growth in northern Minnesota. For. Ecol. Manage., 255(8), 3489-3493. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2008.02.029

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