Learn the Indigenous Art of Basket Weaving at Chill Baskets in Akwesasne
January 14, 2022
Have you ever taken a look at an intricate woven basket and wondered just how someone was able to create such an incredible object? Well, you no longer have to wonder. You can learn all about it firsthand! First, sign up for a workshop to learn about basket weaving at Chill Baskets in Akwesasne. Then, take a trip up to the St. Regis Mohawk Nation at the very northern tip of New York. There you will meet the unbelievably talented Carrie Hill and she will teach you how indigenous people have weaved for hundreds of years. It’s a truly incredible experience.
A special thank you (Nia:weh) to the people of the St. Regis Mohawk Territory, including Carrie Hill, for inviting me to experience Chill Baskets and the wonders of Akwesasne. This is the first of several articles highlighting the people, food, and culture of the region.
About Carrie Hill
A native indigenous woman, and self proclaimed “Mohawk Maven”, Carrie Hill has been weaving since she was a young girl. She learned the traditional ways of basket weaving from her aunt, who passed on generations of weaving experience and knowledge to her.
A pre-k teacher’s aide by day, Carrie spent much of her free time learning and experimenting with the black ash splint, constantly asking “Aunty, can I do this?” And always getting the same response: “I don’t know. Try it.”
“Try it” is exactly what Carrie did. Using the foundation of traditional basket weaving, Carrie continues to experiment with unconventional methods, colors, and designs. The result? Some incredibly beautiful works of art that has been seen around the world. More on that later…
The Beginning of Chill Baskets
When Carrie first started basket weaving, she was a stay-at-home mother of two girls. Chill Baskets was established as a side business in 2005. Piles of splint and sweetgrass filled the dining room table. Yet Carrie’s passion for weaving and carrying on her culture persisted.
After several years, she built herself a studio in the garage. A true artist’s workshop with all the chaos and beauty that entails. In 2014, Carrie took a chance on herself and decided to make a career out of her dedication. That’s when Chill Baskets became a full-time job. In 2015, Carrie was ecstatic to learn that she had won a $7,000 grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts for Traditional Folk Art. The money was able to help jumpstart her business, but she remains grateful and humble.
Now Carrie is proud to say “I am living life on my own terms.”
Chill Baskets Around the World
While baskets were traditionally made to be functional, today you can find them crafted for function or for art. Often a mix of the two. Carrie’s designs have become more artistic than functional. Her baskets range in size from miniature to quite large, each radiating in its own colorful beauty and design. In addition, Carrie weaves other pieces, including purses, apparel, and other accessories. Why stop at one shape?
Carrie’s artwork is so incredible that it has journeyed far outside of the St. Regis Mohawk Territory. Her baskets are regularly featured in shows at Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, New York. The center features indigenous Haudenosaunee artwork from across the state.
But that’s not all. Carrie’s baskets caught the attention of the US ambassador to Eswatini (Swaziland), who asked her to create something for the embassy in Mbabane. Her response? A collection of 6 baskets, one for each of the 6 Haudenosaunee nations. The baskets also represented a shift from nature to modernization, technology, and colonization. The collection still resides at the embassy.
The History of Basket Weaving
Now that we’ve explored Carrie’s story and the history of Chill Baskets, let’s talk about basket weaving. Just how are traditional Native American baskets made?
Traditional Akwesasne baskets are made from two materials – splint from Black Ash trees and sweetgrass – and a lot of hard work and dedication. Splint comes from shaving lengths of Black Ash trees into thin strips, then pounding them to be even thinner. A basket weaver then takes that splint, wets it, and splits it. Twice. Carrie jokes that you’ve got a good split of splint when you can see through it!
But don’t underestimate the amount of work that just goes into finding and creating splint. It takes multiple people and countless days. Plus, there are very few people left who will pound splint by hand. And because the splint is so rare and valuable, nothing gets wasted. Nothing. Even if the wood doesn’t split perfectly, the smaller pieces that come off are used for smaller projects.
Why Black Ash? Because of its pliability. When wet, the Black Ash splint is easy to bend into the shapes necessary for basket weaving. But there’s a problem with that. Black Ash trees are getting harder and harder to find because the species is being destroyed my emerald ash borers.
Originally from northeast Asia, the insects were discovered in Michigan twenty years ago and have been spreading across the country. They bore themselves into the trees, creating tunnels and devastating the trees’ growth. Because Black Ash is becoming rarer, the price is rising and the availability is declining.
As for the sweetgrass, that is much easier to come by. The thinly-bladed tall grass grows abundantly throughout the northeast and is harvested in late summer. Carrie is lucky enough to have sweetgrass growing on her land, so her daughters help her pick it.
Sweetgrass gets its name from its sweet aroma, one that lingers long after it has dried. The blades of grass are stripped and woven around strips of splint. You could say that the sweetgrass is the “glue” of traditional basket weaving.
Learn About Traditional Basket Weaving at Chill Baskets
Now that Carrie Hill has established her business, become a master basket weaver, and won several awards for her art, she is sharing her knowledge with the world. That’s right, you can book a workshop to learn from Carrie herself – right in her own studio!
During the workshop, Carrie will tell you all about the history of basket weaving in the Akwesasne region, how she learned how to weave, and answer any questions you have. You can see firsthand the tools that are required, including razors to strip the splint, and wooden forms that help construct the baskets.
Then the fun starts! Carrie supplies all of her visitors with supplies to create a woven bookmark, made with the same materials as the traditional baskets. A few small pieces of splint, a couple strands of sweetgrass, and a fair bit of patience are all that you need.
Why a bookmark? Because it’s small enough that you can finish crafting it during the workshop and also take home with you. Plus, the structure of a bookmark is very similar to the structure that starts a basket – there’s just significantly less time and skill involved. Also, it gives you firsthand appreciation for the amount of work that goes into creating traditional baskets, and an understanding for the price that usually accompanies them.