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Connecting to Indigenous ancestors by preserving bulrush weaving

Every spring, Wasson Dillard goes looking for bulrush – a long fragile plant that grows in the wetlands of northern Michigan. She teaches other Indigenous people to harvest, dry and weave the bulrush into mats and baskets, preserving the tradition for future generations.

Every spring, Wasson Dillard goes looking for the best spot to harvest bulrush. She’ll travel to places where this long fragile plant grows – typically in wetlands – looking for areas that have the least human contact. She tries to harvest bulrush where there’s minimal risk of pollution from boats or cars.

When Dillard finds the right spot, she’ll go and introduce herself to the plants.

“So, we first kind of understand that we're putting tobacco down and having a conversation,” she says.

Dillard explains to the plants that she is there to harvest, treating them like the real entities they are. Then she brings a group of people to the spot to harvest.

Bulrush naturally filters harmful pollutants from the waters around it. It’s also used to make traditional Indigenous mats, baskets and more. That’s how Dillard will interact with the bulrush. She’s a natural fiber artist and member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

Bulrush drying after the harvest.
Courtesy of Wasson Dillard
Bulrush drying after the harvest.

Learning to Weave

When Dillard’s mother first started teaching her weaving, she wasn't very interested.

"My mom was telling me that I need to learn this to pass it down to other native weavers that I would come across in my future life,” says Dillard.

She started by learning to weave with the man-made materials that came with colonization. Then she worked her way farther back to the traditions created before first contact in 1492, weaving with the natural fibers given by Mother Earth.

Dillard says it was like a time warp, and she found herself growing to love it.

“I'm forever, forever grateful for my mother, forcing me to learn these things, and, in turn, teaching it to our community,” she says.

Dillard’s knowledge now covers multiple weaving patterns from many different tribes.

Teaching to Weave

Dillard is now passing on the weaving lessons her mother taught her. She’s teaching another generation to help preserve these traditions.

“I teach weaving by first introducing individuals to their Mother,” she says. “And that's the earth.”

It requires a lot of patience because she teaches the process in steps, and it takes several months.

“I teach the whole process, not just already prepared fibers to weave,” says Dillard.

Her lessons are hands-on – from the way you hold your body while harvesting to how you hold a knife.

A woven basket.
Courtesy of Wasson Dillard
A woven basket.

These lessons aren’t for everyone. Dillard is willing to share her knowledge with any Indigenous person who wants to learn, but she's protective of sharing it with non-Indigenous people, because it can be easily exploited.

“I'm a bit protective about the technical knowledge,” she says, “but at the same time, I'm in a big hurry to create more instructors.”

With that in mind, IPR has decided to not share the bulrush weaving process in detail. But what we can tell you is Dillard hopes her students leave with a strong connection to their ancestors.

“To help them identify the presence of ancestors that they might not even know had existed in their bloodline,” says Dillard. “And I call their blood memory to come help them.”

Kara Smith, a student of Dillard’s, experienced this first hand. She says her first time harvesting felt natural and soothing.

“We have different emotions and different connections to those fibers that we may not have experienced personally but maybe our ancestors did,” says Smith. “And that just passes down through that blood memory from generation to generation.”

Dillard says, by gaining this connection to our ancestors, we learn more about how things worked before colonization. She says she doesn’t know the names of the Indigenous women who developed these weaving techniques.

“Yet, I remember them through the weaving,” she says.

Suzy Cookis a fellow with the Michigamiing Journalism Project.