Eli "Little Elk" Thomas
1985 awardee, Mt. Pleasant (Isabella County), black ash basketmaker,
dance, and storyteller
Eli "Little Elk" Thomas (1898-90) was a respected elder of the Saginaw Chippewa
Indian Tribe of Michigan. His great-great-grandfather, his great-grandfather,
and grandfather were born in Indiantown, a settlement near the town of Saginaw.
He remembered a time when the marshes nearby yielded wild rice that he and
his family harvested in the fall. Eli was born and raised near Alpena where
his parents worked as loggers and, as a teenager, Eli also worked as a logger
and a sawyer for several years. Eli learned basket making by watching his
grandparents and parents. From them he learned how to select and harvest
the right black ash tree best suited for baskets, pound it "for two or three
days" to obtain the strips which are split and shaved into smooth splints,
and to prepare the natural dyes that did not fade, unlike the commercial
dyes so many weavers now use. He liked to use oak and beech (or alder) to
color his splints.
He made all kinds of baskets--laundry, market, bushel, jewelry, hankie,
hampers, a coarser type one made to wash Indian corn in--as well as a basket
rattle. He also made strawberry baskets, but he did so with caution. "The
strawberry basket is one you don't play around with. The history or story
of the strawberry basket is when a person dies who is good, he goes to the
happy hunting ground and then half-ways there (it is two days there), he
sees a great big strawberry and gets filled up and can go the rest of the
Eli, whose parents did not speak English, was proficient in Ojibwa and English.
His language skills were important in helping to tell traditional stories,
to sing traditional songs, and to officiate at Ojibwa ceremonies as he was
often called upon to do. With Don Stevens and Whitney Alberts, he traveled
around Michigan and beyond sharing traditional stories, music, and dance
at pow wows, schools, and other public venues. The annual pow wow in Mt.
Pleasant has been named for him.
(1) Thomas, Eli. Audio recorded interview with Patricia Dyer. 25 October
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