master craftsman, weaving mathematics and Ojibwe tradition, winds
up with an artist's residency in Washington.
I think of my godfather, Mezinaanakwad, Fancy Sky, I picture him
sitting calmly in his cozy rez kitchen early in the morning, sipping
coffee while listening to jazz. He seems the very picture of serenity
until I notice his hands buried in colorful strands of yarn, furiously
working the threads into fantastically intricate patterns for bags
and belts. Knowing him and his love for mathematics, I also imagine
I can just barely hear a million tiny perfectly synchronized gears
whirring away in his head.
is lost in what he describes as an addiction, finger weaving. The
essence of simplicity, the ancient art of finger weaving requires
only fibers, a stick on which to anchor the fibers, and fingers.
Its deceptive simplicity, however, requires a deep understanding
of mathematics. According to Mezinaanakwad, finger weaving offers
a perfect example of the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic, which
states that, any integer greater than 1 can be expressed as a unique
(I apologize, readers, that I must stop here in any
further discussion of mathematical theory. I can already feel my
pulse and breathing rate increasing as I approach the dreaded, inexplicable
and embarrassing fear zone of math. )
whose English name is Dennis White, has a great love of all things
mathematical. He sees numbers everywhere and is endlessly fascinated
by the patterns in finger weaving as expressions of multiples and
recently learned that Dennis will be sharing his love of finger
weaving with the public in Washington D.C., at the National Museum
of the American Indian. He was chosen as one of four people in the
U. S. for the Museums Artist Leadership Program.
program recognizes and supports indigenous community artists and
while preserving traditional art and culture. As a participant,
Dennis will study and consult with NMAI experts and explore the
museums collection of finger weavings. During the two-week
residency he will conduct research and make a public presentation
about the craft on December 12 at 1 pm in the museums Resource
Artist Leadership program will also support Fancy Skys efforts
to generate interest in the nearly extinct craft within his community
on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Wisconsin. Dennis
hopes to create a course in weaving at the LCO College and grow
a new generation of weavers. With the help of the NMAI program,
Dennis will work on consolidating his many notebooks of weaving
sketches and notes to create a book on the craft.
Born and raised on the LCO rez, Dennis is currently administrator
for the LCO Ojibwe K-12 school. I met him and his wife Cleora, my
godmother, in the early 1980s when he was pursuing his doctorate
-- in mathematics, of course -- at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He was just beginning his love affair with finger weaving. Mostly,
self-taught, Dennis initially learned from books. Later, he found
a few remaining elders who still practiced the craft to guide him.
I recall watching him teach his daughters math with the help of
finger weaving and wondering at the remarkable sophistication of
the Ojibwe ancestors who initiated this craft.
so many traditional Ojibwe activities, weaving integrates myriad
life lessons while creating usable objects. It underscores the wisdom
of indigenous knowledge and its relevance in a contemporary world.
weaving allows Dennis to express his deep love of Ojibwe language
and culture, and tribal spirituality as well. Elders have described
for him how finger woven bags were used in ancient traditional Ojibwe
ceremonies. As I think of the expression on his face when he weaves,
Dennis appears to be at ceremony, deep in prayer yet present and
in touch with the gods of math.