Seneca artist reflects on cultural history of basket making

The Native American basket making tradition is becoming a lost art. With the ash tree on the brink of extinction, it’s difficult to find the ash materials needed to make the baskets and other crafts. Penelope Minner is shown with a sampling of her creations that could become a thing of the past.

SALAMANCA — A local Seneca artisan has been working on her craft to keep the art of traditional Seneca basket making alive.

But with the ash tree on the brink of extinction, her materials are becoming more and more scarce.

The emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive beetle that kills ash trees, has threatened not only the furniture industry but also the Native American basket making tradition practiced by Penelope Minner.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, North America’s most widespread and valuable ash tree species are on the brink of extinction due to the Emerald Ash Borer, a native to Russia and China that was likely brought here on ships in the mid-1990s.

It was discovered in Randolph in 2009. Five of the six most prominent ash tree species in North America are Critically Endangered — only one step from going extinct, with the sixth species assessed as Endangered.

“Our region has been hit and we knew this would eventually happen as the Emerald Ash Borer made its way across the states,” Minner said. “I’ve had to get ash splints from the Mohawk Territory and as far away as Canada and Maine.”

Minner uses black ash splints for her baskets. She has tried using white ash, which is fairly brittle, and the end result was not desirable.

“Black ash has a quality of flexibility and durability that makes for a sturdy basket,” she said. “Once split, the sheen is such a lovely natural feature.”

Because black ash is becoming harder to find, Minner said she is going to be downsizing her baskets. She said more miniature and small baskets are in her future.

According to Minner, the handwork involved in splitting the raw splints into a workable medium is very time-consuming. She said the splints are soaked, split and scraped by hand, then gauged to the size needed.

“Soaking in water helps plump the ash so it’s softer, easier and more flexible to work with,” she explained.

Just as generations before her have practiced the age-old traditions and designs from long ago, Minner said she makes her baskets in the same way her ancestors did — by hand.

“It’s one art form that very few folks still practice in our area. Knowing this, I wanted to keep it from becoming a lost art,” she said. “From splitting the ash, to cleaning/scraping the ash and hand gauging the splints, I try to stay true to the older traditions of designs. But, I also add different elements to my designs to bring my own style to the works.”

Minner said her cousin, the late Midge Dean Stock who was well-known in the region for her traditional baskets, encouraged and influenced Minner’s art in many ways as she was growing up. With her many talents, beadwork, baskets, singing and storytelling, Stock was a font of knowledge and she misses her deeply.

“She received a New York Folklore Art Fellowship and this allowed her to travel to the Mohawk Territory and learn with Mohawk elder, Mary Adams,” she said. “We traveled there to a conference in 2001 to experience the artwork and talents of basketmaking from many Nations and Territories. That was when we knew Indian Country would feel the impact of the EAB.”

A MEMBER OF the Seneca Nation of Indians and Turtle Clan, Minner was raised in Steamburg on the Allegany Territory. She and her husband, Aaron Minner, have a son, Jaymee Minner. She has worked as a graphic designer for 25 years.

As one of 11 children, her family is deeply rooted in the traditional arts. Her father, Lester Jimerson, was a woodcarver/ironworker and her mother, Hazel Jimerson, was a cornhusk doll maker. She thinks the crafts done by her parents and other family members influenced her to choose basketmaking.

“I think being around their art made me want to develop my own way in the art world,” she said. “I love art. Our traditional art form has always been in my life and I have a great appreciation for it.”

Minner said her paternal grandmother, Dorothy Blacksnake Jimerson of the Heron Clan, from the Allegany Territory and Coldspring, made baskets out of necessity. She sold her utilitarian baskets in the Randolph area for staples for the home such as sugar and flour.

“My Aunt Tess Snow told me that their Grandma J. and Aunt Tessie's baskets were mostly market baskets with hickory handles hand-carved by my grandfather, Walter Jimerson,” she said. “They would sell for 25 cents or be bartered for staples.”

Minner also makes traditional corn husk dolls — another Seneca craft that her mother and Aunt N. Tess Snow encouraged her to do when they were still alive.

“I prefer to make the smaller sizes, as my sister, Deb Hoag, makes the taller dolls,” she said. “Each artist has their own interpretation of the doll’s clothing, colors and accessories.”

Minner said it’s a family tradition to pass on what she has learned to help inspire the next generation of artisans. Teaching and sharing is a rewarding experience and, if it weren’t, she wouldn’t do it.

Inspired by her family, Minner said it gives her great satisfaction to share her knowledge with the public and within the art community. It increases her passion for this art form.

(Contact press reporter Deb Everts at salpressdeb@gmail.com)