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Spruce Root Enchanted

A little story on why I use spruce roots in my jewelry.
by Mary Goddard

· BEHIND THE ART

Upon first look, the spruce root may seem plain and boring, but once you touch it, feel it, use it….wear it, it will enchant you. Well, as least it did for me. Could it be because I am from Yakutat, the very place spruce root basketry was born that I have this deep attachment and love for these roots?

My first encounter with the roots were at home watching my mother weave with them. I was home on a visit, and had been out of Alaska for some time.

"I am addicted!" She exclaimed, smile beaming off her face.

This was the first time I’ve seen my mother exchange her leather needle for something else.

“Look!” She said, as she motioned towards her windowsill lined with woven spruce root baskets, “Look what I have been doing! I am addicted to roots!”

The sun shined on her marvelous woven baskets, some standing tall and wide, some smaller than others, their golden hues held my glance. Some baskets were woven with dyed roots, using our local berries; some had grass woven into them. She even wove around a glass ball. All had my mother’s signature, made with determination, excitement, good thoughts and love. That was the only way my mother ever worked on any project. This was clearly her new obsession.

            “You must learn to weave. We can start right now.” 

Mom has always been eager to teach me what she has learned.

So that day, was the first day I laid my hands on spruce roots. And though I may have not woven dozens of baskets (ok, never finished one), I have woven spruce roots into dozens and dozens of earrings and bracelets and am still eagerly using them in my designs and jewelry today.

Quick look at the process to prepare roots.
Freshly dug roots, before the process of cleaning, scraping and splitting begins.
The outer bark must be steamed off.
Taking the outer bark off the root using an enna.
Here my mother shows me how to spilt the roots after they have been soaked. Once they are split and soaked they are finally ready to be used. 
Story adapted from:
The Legend of the Origin of Basketry
by Frances Paul
( Photo courtesy of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, No. 1-916.)

Many years ago, in the time when Raven still walked among men, bringing good to his creatures in strange and inexplicable ways, a woman lived in the cloud country with her beautiful daughter. They were taken there form Earth by Raven, who possessed mysterious powers of the spirit in those days.

            This girl was greatly desired by mortal men as a wife, and many of them made the dangerous journey to the village to consort with her. The young suitors enticed her with descriptions of the majestic mountains, whispering rainforests, and beautiful inlets in their world. Although their sweet words stirred a great longing in the young woman’s heart for her homeland, she refused each of the handsome men. They had to return to Earth, dejected and disappointed.

            It happened that the Sun, Ga-gahn, on one of his trips across the Sky World, chanced to look upon the beautiful maiden. His heart was full of desire for her, and he wished to make her his bride. At the end of his day’s journey, Ga-gahn transformed himself into a man and sought the girl, who consented to mate with him.

            As time went on, she bore him many children, and they lived happily together among the clouds. But the children were of the Earth World, like their mother, and not of the Spirit World, like their father, Ga-gahn. As the woman watched her children romping and playing in the fields of the Sky Country, she felt sad that they would never dabble their bare toes in the clear, cold mountain stream, nor pick ripe, plump salmonberries by the handful. As she fretted thus about their future, the woman plucked some roots and began to plait them idly into the shape of a basket. Her husband, the Sun, being of the Spirit World, understood her distress. He took the basket, which she had woven and made it large enough to hold her and all eight of her children. As they settled into the vessel, he lowered them gently to Earth, where they came to rest near Yakutat on the Alsek River. That is why the first baskets in southeast Alaska were made by Yakutat women.

Collections Study at the Burke Museum, 2014
My sister Jennifer and I studying the spruce root basket collection, along with silver carved jewelry at the Burke Museum. 
I think Jennifer is hooked on roots too. She has some pretty cool jewelry pieces finished with spruce roots. 
One of the beautiful spruce root baskets housed in the Burke Museum. 
I am not the only one enchanted by spruce root baskets. Here is a beautiful display of glass baskets made by Preston Singletary. Jennifer and I had the honor of meeting Preston and touring his gallery during our Collection Studies at the Burke through the Bill Holm Grant.
Copper with spruce roots earrings.
Copper with spruce root cuff. Return to my page to see other spruce root jewelry I've made. 
"Are you enchanted yet?"
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