Pokagon Potawatomi baskets presented to Ohio State

September 13, 2022

Pokagon Potawatomi baskets presented to Ohio State

Three people are sitting at a table.

Ohio State University President Kristina M. Johnson recently joined Ohio State Newark Dean William MacDonald for the presentation of a hand-crafted black ash basket made by noted Pokagon Potawatomi artist Jenny (Brown) Chapman.

John Low, associate professor in comparative studies at the Newark campus, shared the artwork with the university to celebrate Ohio State’s role in expanding educational opportunities for Native students, staff and faculty. Low teaches history, American Indian studies and religious studies. He is also an enrolled member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.

“Native cultures played a significant role in the history of this country, yet their existence has been threatened by systemic and long-standing prejudices, mistreatment and environmental degradation. The preservation of traditions like the weaving of black ash baskets, which came so close to being lost forever, is critical to maintaining the proud heritage of the Pokagon Potawatomi people,” Johnson said after receiving the gifts. “I was honored to recently receive a basket and felt the weight of its importance dating back generations. We must do everything we can to ensure the Pokagon can continue to engage in this beautiful and sacred craft.”

The black ash baskets are an important part of Pokagon Potawatomi culture. Low said while the baskets are considered artwork and are often displayed in museums, they are meant to be handled and used.

“The baskets are alive. They have a spirit. They like to be touched. They don’t want to feel cotton gloves. They want human beings,” Low said. “They’re art, of course, but they also have a function. They carry things. They also carry ideas and hopes.”

Over the past century, the practice of basket weaving has been threatened – first by the enforcement of government regulations that contributed to loss of land and resources, and now by the ecological threat presented by the emerald ash borer beetle.

In the 1970s, skilled artisans founded the Pokagon Basket Makers’ Co-op to revive and carry on the art of basketry, which continues to thrive today.

“Women created the co-op and revived the whole renaissance of the basket making process and the art form. It really revived the spirit and the heart of the community,” Low said. “By 1994, we had our federal sovereignty, our federal recognition restored to us, so it’s a really wonderful story. It means a lot to me, too, because my grandmother was a basket maker.”

The Potawatomi continue to work for the survival of the black ash tree, treating trees on tribal lands with organic pesticides and collecting seeds that may be replanted in the future. 

Low’s collection of black ash baskets is currently on display at the Field Museum in Chicago until October. “Pokagon Potawatomi Black Ash Baskets: Our Storytellers” allows patrons to listen to the stories of the baskets as well as the Pokagon people’s story of tradition and resilience.

At President Johnson's suggestion, details are being completed to exhibit the baskets again on the Columbus campus after the close of the exhibit in Chicago.

Article by Chris Booker
Ohio State News