October 20, 2016

Beautiful, Elegant, Story-Rich Birchbark and Red Willow

When we first opened the doors to our store on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, several local artists came by to visit. Because we focus on clothing and fashion, we don't offer a fine art section. But the talent that came through our doors could not be ignored, and I made a decision to work with a small family of birchbark and red willow artists. They carry on ancient techniques passed on to them from their grandparents - people who are well-known in this area, but not elsewhere. Their work is stunning, even a bit enchanting. And I love that the materials are harvested locally and respectfully.

One artist, Chuck Stone Boy, explained to me that perhaps the longest and hardest task is selecting the tree. The personality of the tree, the texture of the bark - each piece is unique and alluring in different ways. Some bark is stark white with feathery flakes that wisp outward, while other bark is a deep rich red with a strong and bold presence. Other bark that varies from a pale peach to an orange tan adds color to the tops of the baskets.

It became clear to me that is family of artists is incredibly talented, but they had saturated the market here. "How can I help?" I thought, "How can I ensure that these artists can continue traditional practices and share their art and stories with the world?" Months ago, I spoke with them about adding their work to Beyond Buckskin in a new venture - a small extension of the original store that would feature their work. Since we've begun, the response to these exquisite items has been great, and we even got one of Chuck's baskets to be featured in the Holiday Gift Guide for Cowboys & Indians Magazine.

I hope you will view their collection online at this link and share it with your friends. I will be photographing and adding more of their larger pieces this weekend (including one stunning 2-piece red willow turtle shaped basket, and a large and elaborately-etched birchbark basket). They are amazing, and it will be very hard for me to part with them! But knowing that the work is going to appreciative patrons reassures me.

One thing I'd like to note is that the baskets are made entirely out of local and natural materials (excluding the seed beads in the floral basket, clearly), and the bark is harvested with great care. There is a certain time of the year, and a certain method, to ensure that the tree isn't damaged and continues to live and grow. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, a non-Native lumber company came in to our area and cleared out all of beautiful large white birch trees. We now have only young skinny trees left - the ones that have grown since then - and this clear-cutting has greatly impacted not only our ecosystem, but also our artists and traditions. The artists now have fewer trees to work with, and they are hyper-aware of the amount they can incorporate into their work in order to simultaneously continue the ancient practices while maintaining our important relationship to our environment. To balance these factors, the large basket options will be limited. Thankfully we do have an abundance of young trees to create small baskets, and we will continue to nurture these trees for future birch artists as well.