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Traditional craft never gets old

by Margaret E. Davis
| June 18, 2023 12:00 AM

When artist and Salish Kootenai College educator Frank Finley gave a talk at the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center last summer, he shared many ways to look at Native American art. One thing he said in particular caught my ear: “The closest thing in Salish for ‘artist’ is ‘maker.’”

The point came up implicitly and explicitly over two days of special events last month at the Hockaday Museum of Art.

Teachers Aspen and Cameron Decker — enrolled members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (Aspen) and the Navajo Nation as well as a descendant of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (Cameron) — are neighbors and colleagues of the Pablo-based Finley and often travel to teach.

The Kalispell events ranged from presentations on ledger art, storytelling and cedar bark baskets, then culminated in a workshop to make replicas of the baskets.

After a season of reading, writing and only a little bookbinding, I felt like I’d become out of touch with my hands. I love how creating puts me into “flow,” the state where hours pass in an eyeblink and a tangible result issues.

Tag-teaming the instruction so that the other parent could help with their three kids, Cameron went first, providing a broad-brush overview of arts such as painted hides and parfleche (“elders say, ‘Oh, that’s our suitcase’” of the durable leather pouch) and then the ledger art of the late 1800s.

“When I look at ledger art,” Cameron said, “I see real stories.” He noted that individuals typically aren’t detailed, but regalia is. “Facial features weren’t so important,” he said, pointing out the contrast between a blank face in one drawing and an unmistakable jingle dress as an example of the “things that matter — identity is in things we earned or made ourselves.”

For the second day of learning, Aspen — dressed in a yellow skirt decorated with colorful ribbons and a T-shirt printed with her own design — talked about her journey to fluency in the Salish language starting at age 13 and pursuit of traditions, such as making cedar bark baskets.

Taking their kids into the woods remains a priority. “Cameron calls me ‘the Salish GPS,’” Aspen said, for her ability to locate prime collection spots. She beamed with pride that their kids (“the next knowledge keepers”) speak Salish and when asked to fetch a Band-Aid return with a plant remedy.

She also talked about experiments with modern techniques and showed an etched cedar bark basket, saying, “I used a laser engraver on it.”

In introducing the hands-on workshop, Cameron said, “We can’t have everyone go peel cedar trees.” Therefore, we make replica baskets from other materials, although we did get to see images of how bark is harvested. “We pull and pull [the strip of bark] until it snaps,” said Aspen, with her beatific smile. “We don’t harm the tree.”

We happily fall to making: pressing clay into a form that Cameron patterned with bark from a real tree, then simulating sewing at the edges. Same with paper, which we decorate first then sew for real.

We become like kids again, creating containers that combine form and function. As Cameron pointed out, the french fry box at McDonald’s is itself a model of the cedar bark basket.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.