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Mendhi hands by Pushpa Jain. Photographer unknown. All rights reserved.Fish decoy. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Embroidered dress detail. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Cedar bird by Glen VanAntwerp. Photo by Al Kamuda. All rights reserved.
Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo by Al Kamuda

Photo by Al Kamuda

Photo by Al Kamuda

Photo by Al Kamuda

Julia Wesaw
1989 awardee, Hartford (Van Buren County), black ash basketmaker

Julia Wesaw (1908-1992) of Hartford was a Potawatomi who learned traditional black ash basketmaking from her grandmother, Swansee Augusta, and mother, Sarah "Becky" Augusta who sold baskets to tourists, farmers, and resort residents. Julia made three or four baskets a week, preferring the more traditional forms, such as sewing baskets with lids or market baskets with sturdy handles. Julia's talents were many; in addition to making black ash baskets, she crocheted, quilted, and did traditional beadwork. She transmitted her skills and knowledge to several generations of her family, including her granddaughters Tammy and Loretta Wesaw and great-granddaughter Ginny.

In the mid-1950s, basketmaking within the Dowagiac community went into decline but was revived in the mid-1970s when Philip Alexis, Pokagon Potawatomi tribal chairperson, asked elders if they remembered how to make baskets. Julia replied, "Well, we can still make baskets but we can't find the wood." Philip came back 20 minutes later with a black ash tree and later reported "they've been making baskets ever since." At first, the elders formed a small co-op, which later became the Potowatomi Basketmakers Exchange. The men gathered and pounded the wood and made the handles and ribbings; the women prepared and wove the splints into baskets. (1)

Like fellow black ash basketry cooperative member Agnes Rapp, a frequent partner for demonstration and teaching sessions, Julia was a dynamic catalyst for the continuation of basketmaking and other traditional arts, including ribbonwork, leatherwork, beadwork, and quillwork. They also were instrumental in reinvigorating other traditional cultural activities, including the rebirth of the sweat lodge and spiritual meetings.

Julia participated in the 1987 Smithsonian and Michigan Festivals, was a featured artist in the 1984 Western Michigan University basketry exhibition and was the subject of a number of interviews, documentary videotape presentations, and news features. Baskets by Julia and fellow basketmaker Agnes Rapp were featured in an article in American Indian Basketry magazine and in The People of the Three Fires.

(1) Alexis, Philip V. in Rita Kohn and W. Lynwood Montell, Always a People: Oral Histories of Contemporary Woodland Indians. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 1996:30.

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