July–August 2022

Cedar Craft

Many hands contribute to the making of a traditional Anishinaabe cedar bark mat.

Nate Johnson

In the summer of 2020, a group of friends and I gathered together over the course of four days to make a traditional Anishinaabe cedar bark mat—anaakan—on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. These mats were a common item, made by Anishinaabe people wherever cedar trees grew. 

“They were used in ceremony as a placeholder for important items, and generally on the floors of wiig-iwaam,” said Leech Lake Ojibwe basket maker and craftswoman Michelle Marion, noting that “bulrush mats were also made and used to line the walls.” 

Emily Derke, a basket maker who has studied cedar mat weaving and helped guide the project, said, “Minnesota, with its abundance of cedar, particularly in the northern half of the state, was historically a center of cedar mat weaving.”

As a person of Scandinavian descent who teaches classes and makes traditional crafts for a living, I have been working with friends in local Native communities on projects from birch bark canoes to baskets. This mat was a spontaneous collaboration among a group of us who have been working together. None of us had ever made a full-sized cedar mat before, and it had been many years since one had been made locally, so we decided to apply our group skills to figuring it out. 

For instruction, we turned to the recorded teachings of Mary Belanger, an Ojibwe woman who was born in 1878 in Garden River Reserve, Ontario. Her methods were meticulously documented in 1933 by anthropologist Volney Jones and published in 1948 as “Notes on the Manufacture of Cedar-Bark Mats by the Chippewa Indians.” As we worked, Leech Lake band member Mike Novak took pictures and video to document the process for the Leech Lake Education Department.

On a warm July morning, with mosquitoes in full bloom, Michelle Marion and Sydney Harper led us on a hike through the woods in search of a good stand of giizhik, northern white cedar, from which we could harvest bark for weaving. Michelle’s husband, Jeff Harper, and his family have maintained a sugar bush here on the north side of Leech Lake for generations, and cedar grows well in the low, wet spots of that area. Michelle, quietly speaking a prayer in Ojibwe, sprinkled a little tobacco at the base of a cedar tree. “Before starting any harvesting in the woods,” she said, “we offer asemaa—tobacco—as our way of acknowledging the spirits and life of what we are using, and asking for their help.”

For our mat we copied Mary Belanger’s method and peeled only a portion of bark off each tree. “Cultural practices differ from family to family,” added Michelle, “and while you can peel just a portion of the tree so that it will continue to live, in my family we cut down the tree, remove the bark, and use the wood for making tikinaagan (cradle board), bawa’iganaatig (wild rice knocker), abwi (canoe paddle), and various parts for a wigwaasi-jimaan (birch bark canoe).”

When we found an appropriate tree, with sections of bark free of limbs and knots, we cut into the bark horizontally with an ax, then lifted the bark up and walked backward. The bark will peel off the tree in a long strip, in lengths up to 20 feet or longer if the conditions are right. 

Bark peeling has a season, said Emily. “You can peel in late spring and in the summer, but later in the summer the bark has much more sticky pitch in it.” Once the bark is peeled, said Emily, “the outer bark doesn’t have any strength to it, so it is carefully split away from the inner bark, which is the strong, flexible, usable part.”

Helping in the harvest and the weaving were Sydney and Mike Harper’s children, 11-year-old Miikawaadizi Novak and 9-year-old Aniziigwan Novak, and Michelle Marion and Jeff Harper’s daughter, 7-year-old Waaseya Robinson. These kids have spent a lot of time learning traditional Anishinaabe activities with their families, and they were quick to pick up on all aspects of the craft.

“The kids did what they wanted during the process, naturally choosing and learning. It was a special time for our families,” said Michelle.

Over the next two days, we peeled, split, and cut the strips to prepare them for weaving. We dyed some of them with a deep red extract from the root of ojiibik—bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). We dug a small basket full, washed and chopped them, then boiled them on the stove. We added a few strips of cedar bark to this extract to take on a rich red-brown color for patterning.
Now we were ready to weave. We constructed an upright frame from saplings, then twisted up an 18-foot-long cord of wiigob—basswood inner bark—along the top of the frame. “This is used as an edge for the mat,” said Emily, “giving us a foundation to start and end our weaving.” 

Once the first row of strips was laid, several people were able to weave at a time. 

“It is almost like cedar bark was made to be woven,” said Simone Senogles. “It is so strong and pliable—and it did what we needed it to.”

We incorporated the strips dyed with ojiibik, copying the simple pattern documented in Mary Belanger’s mat. We wove for two days, ending with a finished mat that was 5 feet by 3 feet. So far the mat has been used in picnics, in ceremonies, and at the wedding of makers Mike Novak and Sydney Harper.

Simone reflected on the connection she felt to her culture’s ancient lifeways when making the mat. “With those two strips of pliant cedar between my fingers, all the old teachings come into sharp focus for me,” she said. “This mat is a tangible link back to my own ancestors. I was touching the things that they used to touch and do. I needed to do this at least once in my lifetime.”