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“I will follow this one, this one looks like a good one too, oh no it splits off,” says Delores Churchill, digging through the forest for spruce roots.


The renowned Haida weaver is on Kruzof Island as part of a University of Alaska Southeast course that teaches the ancient art.  She's also here to be filmed for a documentary. (See a clip.)


Churchill grew up on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and says for her ancestors, basket weaving was a part of everyday life.


“Everybody wove, and everybody wove their own baskets; some of them carried water, some of them they used as a drinking glass. Some of them were for harvesting clams, some were for harvesting berries, when we collected bird eggs, we had a little basket we put bird eggs in, but we also put moss between the bird eggs.”


But as time went on the tradition lost its footing.  Even Churchill didn’t learn to weave until she was 40, when her mother, Selina Peratrovitch — also an acclaimed weaver — finally agreed to teach her.


“And then I got so addicted to weaving,” she said. “I’d be weaving in the middle of the night, and even though my husband really thought my baskets were beautiful, my mother said, “Well, if you’re going learn fro me you can’t sell those ugly baskets.” So she’d actually burn them, she’d burn them for like 5 years, maybe 4 or five years.”


Nowadays, Churchill is done burning her baskets and is busy keeping the age-old tradition alive.


Standing at Fred’s Creek, Churchill explains to a group of students the sacred tradition of gathering roots.


“Native people really think of the trees as having their spirit,” she tells the students, “So we really honor the trees so when we gather we always say, we are going to gather from your trees, we’re going to gather the roots, but we also want you to continue to grow so that our grandchildren and great grandchildren will be able to come back here and harvest again.”


After giving thanks the class marches into the coastal forest.


There, Churchill scans the mossy floor. Dodging tree limbs and climbing over logs, the 80-year-old Churchill kneels to all fours, looking for a place where roots are likely to be close to the surface. There she digs in and pulls one out, following it back to a spruce tree.


 “It’s always is exciting to be in the woods,” Churchill says. “It’s like Easter egg hunting when you’re a child”


Churchill’s students come from all over the United States and are equally excited to be on the hunt.


 “We want to find them the right diameter,” student Marge Steward says. “I have never searched for these roots before. I’ve been weaving Cedar Bark Baskets about ten years, but I’ve never worked with spruce root before. So this is exciting. We’re looking good.”


Other students are newer to the craft with different agendas.


“My wife said it’d keep me busy,” said one. “Fifty-three and retired, she said I needed to stay busy. So I said, okay I’ll do it.”


This weeklong course will take them through each step of basket weaving, from collecting the roots, to cooking them over a hot fire, and then skinning their bark, splitting them into weavable pieces.


After student collect their roots, the group walks back to the beach to make a roaring fire.


There, roots twisted into figure-8s are placed on the end of green branches and roasted. Once they charcoal and hiss, Churchill pulls one out and strips its bark by running it through a “Y” shaped stick.


 “You have to do it real fast, so give me one of those,” she says. “I’m not entertaining, so get to work.”


As Churchill works, red bubbling bark shoots off the root, leaving it a smooth opalescent crème. Next, she splits each root holding one end between her teeth, and peeling back thin strips with her fingers and a small knife.


“I’m sorry I’m making it look easy, it’s not going to be this easy.”


“She always makes it look easy.”


Easy or not, Churchill says the tradition almost died with her generation. But classes like these, and wild places to forage like Kruzof Island, give her hope the tradition will continue.

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