Marie Leo recalls that she was five or six when she learned how to weave baskets. The 83-year-old Lil’wat elder remembers that her mother would take the scissors and cut up any efforts that didn’t pass muster. Today’s students are having an easier go of it.
Under instructor Vera Edmonds, 10 young women from the Mt. Currie First Nations community are taking up the craft. The women are honing their skills through a four-month course offered through the Lil’wat7ul Cultural Centre at the Xit’olacw School.
Interest in the course was keen, with the seats filling up within days of the course being announced and several people being turned away. In exchange for the instruction, the women will be creating more examples of Lil’wat basket weaving to display in the cultural centre. As well, they will have the skills to pass on to their children and other interested community members.
"I’m glad," said Leo. "Basket weaving was very important to our people."
In addition to being used in daily life for food gathering and storage, the baskets were essential to the Lil’wat economy.
Leo remembers travelling with her family to North Vancouver in the 1930s to sell baskets.
"We’d stand outside and show people our baskets, white people wouldn’t let us in their homes," said Leo.
Trips to the city could be lucrative, bringing both cash and consumer goods such as pots and pans, into the community, but the travel in the days before the highway was arduous. Trading in the Pemberton Valley was more common.
The Lil’wat basket weaving students and other members of the community met at Ronayne’s farm up Pemberton Meadows Road at the end of July to examine examples of early 20 th century basket weaving. The family acquired the baskets through trading with the Lil’wat people.
"A lot of trading went on. They traded for fat, they traded for meat, different things," said Mary Ronayne.
Ronayne’s mother-in-law, the original owner of many of the family’s baskets, came to the area in 1913. The family settled in the area in 1906, when John Ronyane came to the valley via the Klondike Gold Rush.
The display in her son Joe’s living room contains not only baskets, but also serving trays, a suitcase and a table all fashioned from reeds and bark. Each item is attributed to an individual weaver, many of the last names still familiar in the area: Andrew, Jim, Dan and Leo.
The oldest basket in the Ronayne family’s collection was produced by Mathilda Jim.
"I always heard she was one of the best," said Ronayne.
Jim’s great-granddaughter, Cina, is one of Edmonds’s students. Her love of learning and culture brought her to the program and she already has plans to pass on her knowledge.
"My great-grandmother, Mathilda Jim, and my grandmother, Katherine Pascal, both made baskets," Cina said of the family tradition. "Now my six-year-old daughter and eight-year-old niece want to learn."
Jim was not only renowned for the quality of her work, with its distinctive designs and superior craftsmanship, but also the longevity of her career: she continued weaving up to her death at the age of 116. The baskets themselves can last as long as the people who make the baskets. Edmonds says there’s no reason a basket can’t last 100 years if it’s looked after.
Having taught basket making in the local high schools and various workshop settings, she is pleased with how the program has been progressing.
"They’re doing great," Edmonds said of the apprentices. "The first basket they make, I tell them they have to learn to use their hands and how to fix their roots properly, and I never complain."