Hats for the people; Weaving and bartering the old-fashioned way

Jean Johnson
10/27/04

PORTLAND, Ore. - Over at the Gensaw's booth, everybody was laughing. "Don't
get my bad side," Ernestine Gensaw said, posing in one of her cedar hats.
"Don't get my wrinkles."

Good, solid cedar hats are what Gensaw makes. Nothing fancy, just regular
hats the Lummi have made since time immemorial. Conical hats to keep the
Pacific Northwest rains off - and the sun, too, when it's out. Hats to wear
at pow wows and for ceremonies and baskets and dolls as well. These include
everyday baskets to fill with money for giveaways at memorials or to just
plain store the goods in. And also dolls for just anybody to enjoy.

A member of the Lummi tribe, Gensaw said, "There are around 10 to 15 Lummi
people that weave hats and baskets these days, and I'm on the bottom of the
totem pole." That's short for the Native American Indian Museum isn't going
to come calling at her house anytime soon. Then again, as everyone knows,
the bottom of the totem pole is the most important part of the structure.

Refining her art beyond the reach of everyday people and getting her things
displayed in far away places isn't what Gensaw is about. Her hats and
baskets and dolls are made to be used by people around the region. And she
and her husband Willie take her wares - and some of his as well - around
the Northwest to trade and sell just like the Lummi have always done.
Admittedly, now that the Gensaws are getting into their mid-70s, they're
slowing down, but they still get out to where the action is when they can
and set up shop with their big blue tarp serving as the backdrop.

"I make my spending money that way," said Gensaw, who retired from 20 years
as a preschool teacher in 1992. "And it's interesting to meet people -
Indians and non-Indians alike - and find out what they're doing." She comes
by her entrepreneurial bent honestly. "My aunt Bertha Smith who was Lummi
but who lived over on the Macaw reservation taught me, and Edith Jones,
sister to Bertha - she had a little arts and crafts shop here at Lummi and
we made things to sell. That was back when my children were young."

Forty years later with her nine kids all raised and having families of
their own, Gensaw is still weaving and selling. The Gensaws went over to
Muckleshoot last month but it was too rainy to lay down the $100 fee for a
place to set up. "It used to be when we first started going around to
places like the Pendleton Round-up and down to Siletz and Grand Ronde in
Oregon, they'd just let you put your tables up for free. But then things
started going up. First $10, and now lately anywhere from $50 to $100. So
when we were at Muckleshoot, I just went around peddling my things. I
didn't sell any cedar that day. But because it was cold, people bought some
of my knitted things - leggings, a wool hat, and these footlets I make."
Like any good business woman, Gensaw knows that diversifying is a key to
success, and the practical crafts woman has no problem working on
traditional items one day and then switching over to regular old knitting
the next.

Still, it's Gensaw's work with cedar that is remarkable. Her knowledge of
an art set squarely within the tradition of Northwest coastal tribes, both
those along Puget Sound in upper Washington state where Lummi is, as well
as the native people north of the border in British Columbia.

Working with cedar starts up in the mountains where the tall trees grow.
"My husband, Willie," said Gensaw, "he's a retired logger of 46 years. He
peeled my cedar for me over near Mt. St. Helens." She went on to explain
how they take a rope and axe and saw up into the mountains and cut into a
strip of the bark at the base of the tree and then pull it off all way the
up. "We just take one strip or so from each tree and then go to next one,"
Gensaw said. "We leave most of the bark on the tree. And then we strip off
the outer bark and just bring the inside part back home to work with."

Once back home Gensaw uses a cedar cutter to separate the bark into
different widths for weaving. Once cut she rolls the cedar stripping up and
dries it until she's ready to make something. Then she soaks the stiff
material in hot water until it's flexible. "For my hats I use cedar only,"
Gensaw said. "But for my baskets and dolls, I put in all different things
like honeysuckle vines, cattails, nettle, cherry bark, rye grass that grows
in the ditches around Lummi, feathers, and roots."

Along with the technical aspect of gathering in the cedar bark, Gensaw
spoke of the spiritual side. "When you weave you have to have a good mind
because your thoughts go into your work and some people can feel them," she
said. "A lot of people will meditate and pray. That's my belief."

Husband Willie counters his wife with a straight face. "My meditation is
different," he said. "When I'm working on one of these, I think about the
dollars!"

Clearly people don't go to all the work of getting the cedar and processing
it and then making an item that might take several days entirely for the
joy of it. "Cedar hats sell for anywhere from $100 to $1,000," Gensaw said.
"The way I do it is when I go to a new place, I study the people and the
way they shop. Like if they say maybe they seen this better one over there
for this price that was either lower or higher, I'll bargain. Yes. I'm a
bargainer and can be flexible, but I can also be firm."

On the question of how many Lummi weavers are over the hill and whether or
not the craft will continue, Gensaw is optimistic. She taught two of her
sons John and Timothy to weave. And also, as part of her continuing
involvement with the schools, she did a workshop with high schoolers on
making dolls. "I think it has to be the individual who wants to try it,"
said Gensaw. "And there are some. When I went into the school - it was
about three years ago right here at Lummi - I used cattails and taught them
how to make dolls. Both the boys and the girls made them. And they did
really good and seemed to enjoy it."

Gensaw picks up one of her hats, and the reddish tones of the cedar match
the brown of her capable hands. She places the hat on her head and turns to
smile before she goes to greet her next customer. "Have fun and keep
working," she said. "And don't give up!"

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