BANG!   The flexible elm bark pops from the tree.  Oneida craftsperson Rita Chrisjohn Benson carefully places her hands under the bark and pulls it free from the trunk.  No, the date is not 1794, it is modern times. 


Haudenosaunee artists who work with wood understand the trees in much the same ways as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.  Using skills and knowledge handed down through her family Rita will turn the elm bark into a sturdy dance rattle.   


To the woodworker, each type of tree has its own character.  Basswood makes good masks because it is soft and easy to carve.  Hickory is best for lacrosse sticks because of its strength.  Black ash is favored by basketmakers.  Choosing the right wood is important but so is collecting it at the proper time of year.  Storing it correctly is also important.  Haudenosaunee woodworkers show great patience and plan ahead in order to create their art. 


Like other types of traditional art, woodworking developed to provide things that the Haudenosaunee community needed.  Spears, arrows, cooking ladles, bowls, cradleboards and even homes were all constructed from wood.


New materials from Europe introduced by the Colonists reduced the need for wood working and things made by hand.  Today a small number of Haudenosaunee still harvest trees to create lacrosse sticks, snow snakes, baskets, masks, drums and rattles.  Most use knives and chisels that have been handed down through the family.  Almost all require years of practice to master.  But even when the tools are modern, respect for the wood is the first and most important lesson that is taught.


Rita Chrisjohn Benson, Onieda & Mike Tarbell, Mohawk gathering elmbark

 Wooden Bear sculpture by Eva Fadden, Mohawk

Wooden Spoon by Richard Chrisjohn, Sr., Oneida and Elmbark Tray by Richard T. Chrisjohn, Jr., Oneida

Al Jacques, Onondaga

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