Keeping the tradition alive at Colville

Jack McNeel
2/25/04

Omak, Wash. - "I wanted to learn how to make the coiled cedar root baskets because my oldest daughter was about two years old then and it's something my family has done. I wanted to be able to teach her how to do baskets." That was Bernadine Phillips' response when asked why she decided to learn basket making.

The Colville Confederated Tribe, of which she's a member, is quite large. It's composed of 12 separate bands all located in north central Washington. Within the tribe only about a dozen members do coiled baskets, cornhusk, or birch bark, and a few also do pine needle baskets. Thus the making of coiled baskets is approaching a lost art and Bernadine's desire to keep the tradition alive by learning and then teaching her daughters may be one of the final acts of a traditional craft.

Bernadine started lessons in 1991, learning from Elaine Emerson who is still probably the premier basket maker among the Colville people. Bernadine's sister Vera and her mother took lessons at that same time. Her mother had been around basket making her entire life but hadn't learned how. She still makes baskets although Bernadine and her daughters generally collect the materials for her.

Cedar root and bear grass are the main materials although she also uses wild cherry bark in the imbrication. Bear grass is also used in imbrication, either bleached or dyed. She has also used spruce roots at times but finds it pitchier, slower to prepare and also a little more brittle. She uses a sewing strip to wrap around the bundle thus making a long coil, working while the materials are wet, supple and flexible. Imbrication is added later, most often in a geometric form although she is presently working on a basket with a horse design that will include mountains and stars and she recently finished another with butterflies. She uses awls with elk and deer antler handles made by her husband Brian to create the holes through which the splints go to anchor the coils together.

Coiled baskets are slow to produce. She estimated that by working four to six hours a day it would take a month to complete a medium basket. Even though she has sold a few baskets, they are made primarily for family. She occasionally does make some miniature baskets that are sold as necklaces

Bernadine primarily uses artificial dyes she feels make better colors. Boiled Oregon grape root is one natural dye she uses that produces a brilliant yellow color when dyeing bear grass. Her baskets are very tight with patterns in nearly vertical and horizontal lines. The quality is excellent but she says the most noted basket maker and the senior basket maker is Elaine Emerson. Bernadine wouldn't rate herself but felt that Rodney Cawston, who does both coiled baskets and cornhusk, might rank second to Elaine on the Colville Reservation.

Bernadine belongs to the Northwest Basket Weavers Association and works part time for that group. This includes weavers and their families from throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, part of Montana and southern British Columbia. Membership is about 600 and an annual meeting in early October brings many of them together.

Last fall marked the 9th annual meeting and was held on the Upper Skajit Reservation near Sedro Woolley. Next fall they will convene near Olympia.

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