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Weaving new life into a tradition

Renewing First Nations weaving tradition

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What: Art Workshops on the Lake

What: First Nations Cedar Bark Basket Weaving

When: Sunday, Aug. 20, 1-4 p.m.

Where: Chaplainville Heritage Home

Fee: $70

At age 14, Melvin Williams of the Lil’wat Nation wanted to pursue a traditional pastime linked to his heritage. At the suggestion of his father, he began looking into the art of cedar bark weaving.

"It’s a part of our history; it’s a part of us," Williams said. "It is something we shouldn’t have lost in the first place."

The traditional First Nations craft was non-existent in his community; he said everyone on the reserve worked in cedar root, not bark. With no one to guide him, an ambitious Williams hit the books, studying the wood curing process and weaving techniques himself.

"It was dying out," Williams said of the cedar bark basket weaving tradition. "That is why I chose it. I grew up in a big family. Everyone had his or her own thing. I didn’t have money. I wanted to find something that wouldn’t cost me money. My dad mentioned cedar bark, so I started looking in books and the museums to learn more about it."

Williams wanted a first-hand look at the traditional baskets. After calling various museums in the Lower Mainland, he found one museum, located at the University of B.C.’s anthropology department, where he could scrutinize traditional First Nations baskets.

New life was woven into an almost extinct practice as Williams figured out the many complicated weaves used for baskets, hats and shawls.

"I would follow a strip of bark and figure out where it was going to figure out what type of weave it was," he recounts of looking at museum baskets. "The easiest way was to follow one strip through the whole basket. Most baskets are displayed sitting up, but if you turn it upside down and look inside, there is a different weave and different material inside."

In more than a decade since he first became interested in cedar bark weaving, Williams has woven numerous works of art and taught weaving courses throughout the Sea to Sky corridor and Lower Mainland.

"I’ve tried a lot of different ways and different things, but you can always still learn" he said. "I hope more people in the community get involved with it."

Williams hosts a cedar bark basket weaving workshop Sunday, Aug. 20 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Chaplainville Heritage Home on Alta Lake as part of the Art Workshops on the Lake event presented by the Whistler Arts Council and Resort Municipality of Whistler.

Students will learn about the First Nations practice right from tree to finished product. Williams will open the class with a video showing the process of how the cedar bark is prepared for weaving. Williams harvests the bark in early spring. It then undergoes a yearlong curing process. Williams and his mother host the video.

Students will then create their own inner cedar bark basket under the direction of Williams.

"Most people have a great time," he said of the class. "But the first basket will never be the way you think it is going to turn out. You will get the feel of working with the material and I will go around and help people adjust their works. That is why I keep the class small."

There are only two vacancies left. The class is $70, which includes the cost of materials. Call 604-938-9221 to register.

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