Indigenous art. Indigenous perspectives.

Sustaining Black Ash Traditions

fraxinus nigra

Botanical sketch of Fraxinus nigra, black ash

By Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Odawa-Ojibwe)

In the coming decade, black ash split baskets, ash bark baskets, and hand-carved ash cradleboards will become some of the rarest, collectible pieces of Native art. Black ash (Nigra fraxinus), also known as brown ash, is a tree that only grows in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. The Native Nations in these areas, which include the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Wabenaki, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, have woven baskets from the black ash tree for thousands of years. First, they wove utilitarian baskets, and after contact, fancy baskets to provide for the needs of the communities and families.

In 2002, Deborah McCullough and a group of researchers from Michigan State University discovered the emerald ash borer (EAB) in southeastern Michigan. This beetle, Agrilus planipennis, was introduced to Michigan through infected ash pallets from China. Thousands of ash trees were discovered to be dying and dead, and today Michigan has lost over 400 million of its 803 million ash trees due to EAB. The US Department of Agriculture predicts the loss of the entire ash resource of North America. Once EAB infects an ash tree—or worse an ash stand—the ash trees will die in three to five years. EAB can fly about a mile a year, but, through the movement of infected logs and firewood, EAB is spreading at a much faster rate. Forests of over 21 states are now infected with EAB, with more added to the list each year.

Scientists believe the EAB first reached Michigan in 1992. Initially discovered in Eastern Pennsylvania in 2006, the beetle has been present since 2000, as determined by a study of growth rings on infected trees. The size of the borer and number of years it takes to visually see the signs of EAB in infected trees makes it hard to discover the infestation when it first happens. Black ash trees normally grow on grounds with higher water tables. Black ash trees produce seed only every five to seven years. A good basket tree is 30 to 50 years old. In a stand of 50 black ash trees, maybe five to 10 will be good basket trees.

kelly church baskets

Black ash baskets by Kelly Church. Bark baskets, historically used for gathering berries, on the top left

I come from an unbroken line of black ash basket makers going back centuries. We have a picture of my family working baskets from 1919, but my grandmother said, “We made baskets before they made cameras.” I learned how to harvest and process the tree from my father Bill Church and cousin John Pigeon. I know approximately 40 weavers in Michigan, and about 20 are from my family. We teach other nations in the Great Lakes and in Canada how to harvest and weave since the knowledge has been lost by many nations with the passing of an elder who was unable to spark the interest of the next generation. The laborious work and easier ways to make a living have also played a part in the knowledge being lost.

Emerald ash borer

Emerald ash borer (EAB) on a damaged tree

As a culture bearer of my people, and all of our relations, I take the responsibility of teaching and sharing the knowledge with others very seriously. I travel extensively to wherever I’m asked to teach. I work with youth to ensure the knowledge is passed onto future generations. Most important of all, work that can be done today is seed collection to ensure the continuation of these traditions in future generations.

I began sharing with other weavers at shows I attended, about the EAB and what they had coming their way. In 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014, I hosted national conferences in Michigan to bring Native practitioners, researchers, and other experts together. I have assisted institutions and individual collectors in attaining complete collections of black ash baskets before it is too late.

michigan black ash

Black ash stand in a swamp in Michigan

Over the last decade, I have worked closely Richard David (Haudenosaunee), Jennifer Neptune (Penobscot), and John Pigeon (Pokagon Potawatomi), with Les Benedict, Mike Benedict, by teaching and sharing all that we know about black ash trees and seed collection. By working together, we will ensure the continuation of this tradition.

Even if seeds are collected, the fact remains that basket making will not be passed on for decades, as it has had for centuries, due to lack of basket trees and the planting and regrowth of the trees. To ensure the knowledge is not forgotten and able to be passed on again, I have focused teachings on youth and have documented with videos the entire identification, selection, and harvesting of a black ash tree, as well as, in entirety, how to process the materials and weave baskets from the finished products. These recordings will be stored among tribal communities and can be used to bring the knowledge and teachings back when we are able to safely replant and regrow ash trees in the future.

Seeds, seeds, seeds. This is the most valuable aspect of the process today. For more information on how you can help, visit to learn more about EAB, to learn more about collecting ash seeds, and for more information on the 2014 EAB Effects on Black Ash Traditions Conference and Black Ash Collection Consultations. Miigwetch!

ash seeds

Comparison of ash seeds

This was originally published in part in First American Art Magazine Issue No. 2, Spring 2014.


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