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Branching out with willow

Traditional practice applied in a new way

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Dec 07/01) - Another purpose for babiche can be added to the list.

Babiche, a traditional Dene way of making rope from strips of caribou or moose hide, was woven to make seats and backings for miniature willow furniture at a three-day workshop last week.

NNSL photo

Mary Ann Michel, left, and Leah Isaiah build the base of a miniature willow chair, which would later have babiche, or strips of caribou hide, woven through its seat and backing. - Derek Neary/NNSL photo

Workshop participant Elizabeth Hardisty said babiche has historically been used to make rope, snowshoes, ice scoops and dog whips. Elder Jane Grossetete fondly recalled spending two days and nights as a youth taking a snowshoe apart to figure out the proper babiche weave. Although Grossetete has retained those skills, others never acquired them.

"I think the (impetus for the workshop) was just to try to get the traditional skills and knowledge across because those were lost through residential schools," said Hardisty, who noted that the workshop was funded by a "healing through arts and crafts" proposal to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

"I've seen my mother (weave babiche) but I didn't have the opportunity to learn the weaving," she said.

Most of the 13 people enrolled in the workshop made miniature chairs. Some crafted little stools and canopy beds.

Deanna Warne, who has been living in Fort Simpson for a year, helped participants shape the branches into frames. She said willow is best gathered in winter when the sap has receded into the roots, yet the branches retain their flexibility. Warne has been using willow for years to make doll furniture for collectors.

"The nice thing about it is even if you don't have much money it's a hobby you can get into," she said, adding that she has also seen full-size tables, trellises and arbours made from willow.

Mary Isaiah, another workshop participant, put together two miniature chairs in two days.

Now when she goes into the bush, she might just gather up some willow branches and delve into another project.

"I'd never done it before. It was fun," she said.