Black Ash Basketry at Grand Rapids Art Museum

The Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Michigan Artist Series showcases “An Interwoven Legacy: The Black Ash Basketry of Kelly Church and Cherish Parrish” through February 26, 2022. Featured are the works of mother and daughter basket makers Kelly Church and Cherish Parrish, members of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band (Gun Lake Tribe).

More than 20 new works are on display in the exhibition which focuses on the centuries-old tradition of black ash basketry. Some of these are traditional baskets, while others are woven works of art that draw on Native history and storytelling to make striking parallels to current events.

​“In Kelly Church and Cherish Parrish’s family, basket weaving has been handed down from one generation to the next, extending back centuries,” GRAM Chief Curator Ron Platt said in announcing the exhibition. “Their work is especially powerful for the way it balances tradition with their concerns about the environment, both here in West Michigan, and nationally.”

The artists and their family come from an unbroken line of black ash basket makers. The Anishinabe originally made baskets purely for utility, weaving them in various sizes for carrying, collecting, and storing. As a broader appreciation for Native baskets developed, their ancestors began creating decorative baskets to sell and bolster the tribal economy. Church and Parrish draw on these traditions to create more topical and experimental works. “An Interwoven Legacy” powerfully demonstrates both their astonishing artistry and their urgent advocacy on behalf of Native traditions.

​“The black ash tree is an integral part of who we are, from creation stories to blood memories, to the baskets that we make today,” Church said. ​“We start with the black ash tree, and we do all of the processing — we harvest it, we process it, we cut it, and then we make a basket that tells a story of our life today. We’re combining the traditions of our past that have been carried on for thousands of years.”

The show emphasizes two of the artists’ primary motivations: the importance of maintaining the basketmaking tradition within their culture, and their advocacy for the black ash tree’s survival, which is being decimated by an invasive insect, the emerald ash borer. These issues are critically important for people whose cultural survival depends on passing traditions on to the next generations, whether through language, ceremonies, or practices like basketry.

​“Cherish and I take our old traditional teachings and we combine it with the contemporary stories of who we are as Natives in 2021,” Church said. “We are the largest basket weaving family in Michigan, and the fact that we can carry it on this long, to me shows strength and resilience of who we are.”

Kelly Church shared her motivation for two specific pieces in the exhibition with See Great Art. Both pieces reference Indian Boarding Schools which I have written about previously.

Kelly Church, Blood Memory is in our DNA

Kelly Church, Blood Memory is in our DNA. Courtesy of the artist.
Kelly Church, Blood Memory is in our DNA. Courtesy of the artist.

The first Indian Boarding school in Michigan opened in the 1800’s. Native children were taken from their families and they were punished for speaking their first language and for practicing their culture. Approximately 86% of Native children in Michigan attended these boarding schools.

This piece shows that we retained our language, we retained our teachings, and we retained our culture.

There are many unmarked graves being discovered at these schools as recently as last year. If a non-native child’s grave were discovered, it would become a cold case and make the national news for tips to solve the crime, yet our children are not given the same attention, respect, or value when these

unmarked graves are discovered. We want our cold cases treated as any other, solved and those responsible punished.

The schools were paid for each child they had, but keeping death records and marking graves did not get them paid so many Native children deaths went unreported.

My grandmother attended Mt. Pleasant Indian school as a child. She was punished for speaking her language at school, but retained it by speaking it at home each summer. She was fluent when she passed, but did not pass on the language due to her punishments at school.

The next generations are seeking out the language from their elders and continuing to practice their culture.

We are strong and resilient.

Kelly Church, The Emergence of We

Kelly Church, The Emergence of We. Courtesy of the artist.
Kelly Church, The Emergence of We. Courtesy of the artist.

Beginning in the 1800’s Native Children from Michigan and all over the United States were taken from their homes to Indian Boarding Schools where their hair was cut, and they were punished for speaking their language or practicing their culture. The idea was to take the “We” out of the Indian Child and replace it with “I.”

Our nations are very community oriented, and this notion never stuck with our ancestors. This piece is quilled in the fashion of a rare butterfly that is half male and half female. It is meant to represent us all, and the emergence of our togetherness.

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