weren't any wild car chases, eye-popping explosions, or bodacious
babes flickering on two screens Tuesday night at the Celebration Cinema
North in Grand Rapids to an overflow crowd of nearly 800 people.
quiet conversation and interesting visuals that show how an area
family makes, of all things, baskets.
the audience was enraptured.
premier of the one-hour, locally made documentary, "Black Ash
Basketry: A Story of Cultural Resilience," says as much about
the residents of metro Grand Rapids as the protagonists in the film,
the family of Steve and Kitt Pigeon in Allegan County.
idea for the film, its funding, its talent and its audience were
all local. And judging from the audience's reaction, we liked what
we saw on the silver screen.
haven't missed your chance to see Black Ash Basketry for yourself.
The film is scheduled to be broadcast on WGVU's Public Broadcasting
Channel 35 at 12:30 p.m., Easter Sunday, April 4.
Ash Basketry focuses on how the Pigeon family and other local Potawatomi
Native Americans have maintained the venerated craft of basket-weaving
for generations. The film begins with a trip by members of the Pigeon
family into a swampy area of the woods where the cold, wet soil
is favored by the black ash tree.
my goodness," Steve Pigeon, 57, marvels in the film as he admires
a large black ash during his search for the "right" tree.
"I think he'd enjoy sitting in our house for a long time or
used as a basket."
video clips show Kitt Pigeon and her family sitting in lawn chairs
outdoors, each carefully weaving the ribbons of thin ash strips
into baskets. Others show men from the Pigeon family doing the heavy
work of cutting the trees into seven-foot lengths, rhythmically
beating the logs with the dull side of an axe to separate the annual
growth rings, and then scoring the logs into two-inch-wide strips
that are peeled away and then carefully separated into as many as
12 thin strips.
the film advances, chapter titles written in the Ojibwa language
by Helen Roy of Canton flash across the screen. Lilting Ojibwa songs
sung by Roy and her husband, David Fuhst, fill the studios and lend
a new dimension of the multi-faceted documentary.
their married life, Steve and Kitt Pigeons rekindled the skill of
basket-weaving to help support their family: son, Edmund, now 32
and vice chairman of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi
Indians commonly referred to as the Gun Lake Tribe in Allegan County,
and daughters, Angie, 30, and Pearl, 28.
Pigeon family is following in the steps of Steve's late father,
basket-maker Edmund White Pigeon, a descendant of Chief White Pigeon,
a revered Potawatomi leader after whom a town in the thumb of Michigan
is named. Edmund Pigeon, a World War II veteran, learned the craft
as a youngster from his father, a master basket maker, and his father's
The emerald ash borer is the obvious antagonist in the film.
with the loss of black ash trees to the beetle -- and the lost ability
to continue making black ash baskets -- Kitt Pigeon, 56, shares
with viewers her frustration. She and other family members are obviously
enjoying their time together weaving baskets when she tells the
cameraman: "I just don't want this all wiped out by a bug,"
she says. "A bug is just a bug!"
"bug" was unknown in North America until June 2002 when
it was discovered killing millions of ash trees in southeast Michigan
and neighboring Windsor, Ontario. It is widely believed this native
of Asia was accidentally imported into Michigan through infested
crating at least 15 years ago.
get a glimpse of how devastating the beetle can be when the scenery
reverts to Walpole Island in Ontario in the St. Clair River, where
the insects have destroyed every ash tree on the island within six
trees die off due to lack of water and nutrients. In the summers,
tiny larvae worm their way through the tree's bark, feed on the
conducting tissues, and leave twisted scars in their wake before
exiting the bark as an adult the following June.
is increasing concern about the emerald ash borer coming into our
area," says Kevin Finney, executive producer of the film and
executive director of the Great Lakes Lifeways Institute in Allegan
County. "Basket makers in the area have been making them for
thousands of years. It's just a huge tradition that would be threatened.
We wanted to document the tradition before we have a total loss
of ash trees."
in the Making
Dreams of creating the film began about eight years ago when Steve
Pigeon and his friend Finney were working on baskets and wondering
about how their forefathers lived. "We thought it'd be amazing
to watch a DVD and see what their lives were like," Finney
recalls. "What a treasure it would be!"
shared his dream with Rick Gillett at Forest Hills Public Schools'
Goodwillie Environmental School, where Finney serves as a part-time
educator of birch-bark canoes basket-weaving, and other environmental
by Gillett's support, Finney soon was soliciting funding from the
Dyer-Ives Foundation, Wege Foundation, Steelcase Foundation, Nokomis
Foundation, students and parents at Goodwillie School, and the Gun
Lake Tribe, which sponsored the premiere showing.
addition to naming the organizations and foundations at the show's
premier, Finney heartily thanked individuals such as Mike Colby,
Klaas Kwant and Dwayne David from Grand Rapids Community College's
media department, and Laurie and Don Gardner of Grand Rapids.
documentary has been in the making for two years, with most of it
filmed in beautiful outdoor scenes in Allegan County. The film is
dedicated to Edmund White Pigeon and to the late Gladys Sands, a
Bradley area Native American who raised her daughter, Sydney Martin,
with sales from her baskets which, her daughter says in the film,
"never wore out."
addition to their baskets, patience by tribe members also never
seems to wear out.
says native elders are putting their trust in nature in dealing
with the potential cultural loss of making baskets from the black
ash. "They look back and see the baskets are important,"
he says. "But it's not the baskets themselves (as so important),
it's the fact they (people) come together as a family and the forest
provides for them."
Indians have developed a resiliency after having lost so many things
in the past 200 years, Finney says, that many are confident they'll
weather this storm as well. In the film, basket-maker Sydney Martin
puts it this way: "The black ash tree knows what it's supposed
to do. It's the humans that kind of freak out."
isn't to say there's apathy towards the black ash's plight. Basket-maker
Kelly Church of Hopkins called the efforts to save the black ash
a "race against time," saying there's a nationwide effort
to collect and save the seeds for future generations if the trees
are lost. And there are local efforts such as the one to championed
by Carol Moore to combat the emerald ash borer and nurse trees back
Allen, a habitat restoration specialist from the Nottawaseppi Huron
Band of the Pottawatomi in Fulton, came to watch the film to help
his efforts in preserving what black ash wood remains. Allen says
he has set aside almost 40 logs in dry storage, a flowing stream
or in a swampy area to determine how the wood might be best preserved
at least for several more years. A basket-maker sitting in front
of him heard his story and then shared the fact she has found cold
storage to be effective.
Reservations for the premier viewing of Black Ash Basketry flooded
in at such a fast rate, a second theatre at Cinema North had to
be reserved a few days earlier to accommodate the growing throng.
film is "more than I ever thought it would be," says Kitt
Pigeon, as she and her family displayed nearly 40 woven baskets
at the premier.
viewers thought so, too. "I thought it was fabulous,"
says Annie Rouvillois of Cascade who brought her daughter, Cecilia,
10, and her friend, Abby DeWeerd, 10, to the premiere. Both are
students at Goodwillie School and say they weren't disappointed
at all. "Better than I expected," says Cecilia.
is so much interest in the Native American traditions," observes
another movie-watcher, retired history teacher Marcella Beck. She
was impressed with the behavior of a sizeable number of school children
in the crowd. They "didn't make a sound," she says, "because
they were so absorbed with the film."
Hanks is innovations and jobs news editor at Rapid Growth Media.
She also is owner of The Write Words in Grand Rapids.
Band of Pottawatomi Indians