Pass it on
Sue Coleman and Tera Kannan
“When are we going to get pine nuts?" Tera >Kannan, 10, eagerly asks her grandmother.
“Soon. It’s almost time,” Sue Coleman answers in a soothing tone that speaks to the number of times this conversation has likely taken place during the Washo tribe’s history.
A couple months after the pine nut harvest comes the willow hunt, the first step in basket weaving. Kannan’s icy blue eyes watch her elder as she says, with a trace of reservation, that she enjoys this special task that she and her grandmother share.
“It has to freeze before we can get [the willows], so all the leaves fall off, when they’re dormant,” Coleman says. “I have fallen in the rivers and endured wind and snow to get a good willow.” No wonder Kannan’s enthusiasm sounded reluctant.
Kannan—who lives with her family on the Washo reservation in Dresslerville, six miles south of Gardnerville—is growing up on the same plot of land on which her grandmother was raised. Kannan was making frequent trips to Coleman’s house in south Carson to learn the craft of basket weaving until her grandma was forced to take a break due to surgery for carpal-tunnel syndrome.
“I’m waiting for my wrists to heal; weaving contributed to it,” Coleman says. One of her wrists is still bandaged, and Kannan’s perilously beautiful face flinches when Coleman barely pulls back the tape to reveal the incision.
There’s a very specific sequence to making a willow basket. Collecting comes first; it’s important to collect enough good willow to last the year, but not so much that you can’t properly prepare it for storage before it dries. Thread making comes next. Then there are the steps of stripping the bark and the weaving of the baskets. Coleman demonstrates the process of splitting the slender willow branch into three strands using her teeth and both hands, a technique she says took a year to perfect. These strands are then stripped down to make thread.
“I’m not good at it,” Kannan says.
“My mother used to have people split willow when they’d come to visit her. … They’d see how hard it is,” Coleman says. Her mother, Theresa Smokey Jackson, was well known for her stunning basketwork, especially during a time when the trade was at risk of dying out.
Coleman was awarded a grant by the Nevada Arts Council’s Folklife Apprenticeship Program, designed to encourage master folk artists to pass their skills on to committed learners. Coleman’s mother was granted the award back in the ‘80s in order to pass the craft onto her.
“This is a really good willow,” Kannan says, looking at another branch Coleman is preparing to split.
“She knows the quality to look for,” Coleman says. Kannan appears to take in quickly all her grandmother teaches her. Together, they have traveled the West going to basketweavers’ conferences to learn even more.
The baskets, cradle boards and winnowing trays Coleman has made deserve an entire article to themselves simply to describe their superb craftsmanship and beauty. For now, though, the remarkable relationship between granddaughter and grandmother, master and apprentice, sage and sponge, will have to suffice when it comes to explaining what the NAC’s Folklife Apprenticeship Program is all about.