The Ho-Chunk Nation has few members who make baskets, but a tribal member from Baraboo is teaching others how to carry on the art.
Baraboo resident Kim Hall-Crowley, 46, taught basket making for Wisconsin Dells High School students in the spring, and she said she teaches often at the House of Wellness for Ho-Chunk youth, too.
Kim said she doesn’t make anyone learn the craft — they have to want to learn it, she said. And while Kim said it matters to the tribe that its members continue the tradition, she’s happy to teach young people who aren’t Native Americans how to make baskets out of black ash.
“If they’re willing to learn, it doesn’t matter to me,” Kim said.
She went to the school for five to six weeks and taught every step of the process for making round and square baskets, starting with peeling apart strips of black ash to sewing them up. Scraping the black ash with a knife is another step, but Kim said she did that part for her students.
“They did practically everything on their baskets,” Kim said.
The students watched a video about basket making to help them learn. Kim donated her time, so the only cost to the school was for materials.
Just as the Wisconsin Dells students learned basket making at a young age, so did Kim. However, she said she learned it from her mother, Christine Link Hall, who has since died. And her father, Sidney Hall Sr., helped her mother do some aspects of it, Kim said.
Kim acquired basket making skills starting at 13 years old by watching her mom make them.
She said she didn’t have an allowance.
“This is a way of making money, and I wanted stuff,” she said.
Kim said it was a combination of making an income and preserving a tradition that motivates her to make baskets today.
She started making small baskets to hold pencils.
“How I learned was just sitting there watching my mom,” Kim said.
Once school let out Kim would study her mom while she was working on baskets, using scraps of materials from her mother’s baskets and attempting to make a basket base.
Every now and then her mother would give her some instructions, she said.
Kim advanced from making pencil baskets to cheese baskets with covers to fruit bowls and to a baby bassinet.
Kim said she demonstrated basket making during a fair at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s after being invited there and that one of her mother’s baskets is said to have been displayed at the museum.
It is thought that there are only 14 basket makers out of 7,000 members of the Ho-Chunk Nation.
“To me it’s a dying art,” Kim said.
Kim’s brother finds the black ash in the wild and pounds it with an ax before peeling apart the bark to obtain the strips suitable for basket making, Kim said.
Her parents would ask farmers’ permission to take some black ash from their land, she recalled, and sometimes would make baskets for the landowners as part of the deal. Kim recalled that her mother made Easter baskets for farmers for one situation.
Kim can repair the baskets, but she said when they are made of black ash they are very durable.
“If you make a basket right, it will last forever,” she said.
The baskets may last, but new generations of people to construct them may be scarce.
Kim’s daughter, Sarah Crowley, wrote an essay as a 13-year-old, saying she, too, is intrigued by black ash basket making and wants the custom to continue.
“I hope that more people of my tribe realize this unique, dying art and want to help bring it back, It would be such a shame to see this amazing art be lost forever,” she said in the essay, “Trying to Save a Tradition: Through a Teenager’s Eyes.”