transnational. Traded across the St. Lawrence (it’s usually cigarettes that get all of the attention as traded transnational objects in this region, but there are others, and this is one of them). Historically for the Akwesasronon, the trade in sweetgrass baskets
across the river in the winter months was a key culture industry and means of economic survival for families. So, it’s a form of art, but also a form of currency in a barter economy.
transnational. Yet it also is a form of Mohawk ID and culture that was once explicit, yet was made illicit as border security between Canada and the US tightened, especially from the era of Prohibition onward. Its ‘transnational’ status is also complicated, because while the Mohawk person might see him/herself as simply crossing to another part of Mohawk territory to barter a basket, the Canadian and US authorities are preoccupied with the idea that s/he is transporting cross-border goods. Such moments reveal the workings of a form of cultural hegemony that presumes that the nation-state boundary is the most significant and worthy of policing (at the expense of other cultural formations). Some lines on the land and water matter, and some don’t.
My ‘Thing’ that is good to think with: Sweetgrass and black ash basket, Tyendinegea (but these baskets are primarily made in Akwesasne and other Kanien’hehá:ka [Mohawk] territories as well)
Why it’s good to think with: We might think of it as a ‘craft’ object, a tourist knick-knack or keepsake, but it is much more than that: It’s an object full of intersections, both micro and macro. It demands nimble and practiced hands to create.
cultural. It’s a carrier of culture, story, particular lived relationships to the environment- the practice of basket making by First Nations in North America is on a time scale that we have trouble grasping, in our age of presentism: it is thousands
of years old.
cultural. What can we learn from this example when it comes to passing along our contemporary forms of environmental knowledge / relationships / practices, or thinking about how environmental time works (Paul Huebener’s notion of ‘temporal discimination’)? I don't even have a working tape player for cassettes that were around only 20 years ago!
endurance. It’s a reminder of cultural endurance, but also cultural fragility, in the face of environmental change.
endurance. It’s an object that disrupts the current, naturalized view of the St. Lawrence River as a rigidly structured shipping route for ocean-bound vessels, where two nations come together to engage in capitalist enterprise.
knowledge. It represents a form of inter-generational knowledge (for instance, about gathering plants and their habitats and harvest times) that is passed on, even as it makes room for the distinctive designs, imprints, and aesthetic improvisations of the individual basketmaker. The baskets are signs of collective traditions, but also of personal expression and beauty. Les Benedict and Richard David note that “It was said that the Creator gave all the knowledge of the world to the Haudenosaunee people in three great baskets”– so the basket is a epistemological ARCHIVE, of sorts – it contains what one really needs to know to live, and to live well, on Turtle Island.
knowledge. This is an interesting concept, and I think it demands that we as ecocritics (and as ecocritics engaged in a digital venture) ask ourselves, ‘what goes in our baskets (ie. our websites, our digital projects, our disseminated work? What do we deem essential knowledge to share about how to live, and to live well, with and on this earth?’). And to me, this then implies some measure of judicious selectivity to what we put up on the web, and how --- it’s NOT just a matter of volume – there’s already too much of that in this age of information overload. And once we’ve planted the seeds, how (and who) will fertilize them, tend, them, maintain them? So if you’re only able to carry so much, then what is really important for you to carry along with you?
labour. The need to make these baskets has engendered a new kind of involvement by Mohawk people in the workings of botany, biology, plant propagation, and the communication and sharing of that knowledge within the community. If they were going to have black Ash in the future to meet their need for baskets, they needed to start growing their own stock. Benedict and David make the point that the basket maker’s first completed basket is always given away
labour. This raises the question also of what and how we share of our work as academics – with whom do we share, under what circumstances, and how? What constitutes the ‘content’ of what we want to share with others about what we do and what we’re interested
in as environmental humanists, and how does the form in which we do that sharing influence who receives it and what they take away from it? Does there need to be a different way of thinking about labour – and the whole notion of ‘free’ labour and
the ‘free’ dissemination of knowledge in the age of Environmental Humanities and Digital Humanities – and if so, what should this look like?
place. It’s literally made of place, and whose material ‘ingredients’ have been jeopardized by settler-colonial infrastructure, in this case the St. Lawrence Seaway. The seaway opened the heart of this region to greater flows of transnational ecological agents, like the emerald ash-borer insect.
Sweetgrass and Black Ash Basket
An object symbolizing a wealth of micro and macro intersections
Wilfrid Laurier University