might think that making Athabascan split willow root trays and baskets
would be in Daisy Demientieff's blood. After all she was born in
a fish camp on the Yukon River, grew up in a log cabin speaking
the local Deg Xinag dialect, had ample opportunity to watch the
traditional craft work at which her mother and grandmother excelled.
thought the same thing, she said. And she was wrong.
I left home, I had this idea that anytime I needed money, I'd just
start right in and make a basket," she said. But when the time
came and she tried to turn a tough willow root into the pliable
fiber strand needed for weaving, the root cracked and broke off,
becoming unusable for anything but kindling.
I had to go back and learn it," she concluded with a philosophical
a recent documentary, "A Beautiful Journey," Demientieff
shows the right way to do it -- and the process is not for the faint
of heart. It begins with days of travel by boat on the Tanana and
Yukon rivers, camping out in whatever conditions the country may
throw at you -- mosquitoes, chill and rough, log-clogged water --
hunting for places where erosion has exposed roots suitable for
the artistic medium.
thickness and viability of the root are all considerations to be
carefully weighed at the time of picking. But no matter how carefully
the initial selection is done, many of the harvested roots will
have to be discarded later on.
Demientieff spies a likely candidate, or cluster of candidates,
things can get really tricky. With luck they can be pulled up from
a more or less flat bar with relative ease. But they may also stick
out from a cut bank that looms straight up from the river. In those
cases, she and her crew of family and friends can find themselves
teetering on the bow of the boat, leaning over the deep, cold water,
straining to reach a prize root and giving it a tug. But not too
hard a tug, lest hundreds of pounds of overhanging dirt and vegetation
come crashing down on them.
"A Beautiful Journey" she shows how she splits the roots.
It's an exercise in careful leverage, counterbalanced pressures
and brute force requiring both hands and good set of teeth.
finished the split roots will be woven into large trays, an on-again-off-again
process that can take years. During the making, eye-catching geometric
patterns emerge. "The patterns aren't written down," Demientieff
confirmed. "You just start and see what happens."
The rarity of the trays and their striking patterns make them of
particular interest to collectors and museums. Demientieff is said
to be one of three women who know how to do this. Her work is owned
by people like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President
George Bush. She has twice been a featured artist at the Smithsonian
Folklife Festival -- in 2006 and, before that, in 1984, with her
mother, the late Belle Deacon, a National Endowment for the Arts
"living treasure" fellow.
to home she has taught in Anchorage schools as part of the Artist-in-the-School
program for many years and twice has been chosen as the Elder of
the Year by Cook Inlet Region, Inc., the Native-owned corporation
based in Anchorage, where she now lives.
recently had a solo exhibition at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation
Gallery in Anchorage and is included in the "Weaving of Life"
show at the Alaska House gallery in New York City, opening this
addition to the tedious split-root weaving, she also does widely
admired birch bark baskets, bead work and skin sewing, "Fur
things, mukluks, hats. I think Native women need to know these things,"
"A Beautiful Journey" shows, she is actively engaged in
teaching her skills to a new generation of Athabascan women.
on the film is the sound -- though not any pictures -- of Demientieff
making music. With her late husband Mike, who died in 2003, she
was a fixture at the annual Athabascan Fiddle Festival in Fairbanks.
She sings and plays guitar and was the festival's Honored Elder
honors are secondary for her. She finds her real fulfilment in the
work she produces. "It's my therapy," she said. "I
don't want to clean house. I want to do bead work and make baskets."