Teachers weave baskets to learn tribal history

IGNACIO - Not far from the weight-lifting equipment, the smell of willow reeds dominated a room in the Sun UteCommunity Center.

At one table, Annie Cantsee and Shirley Denetsosie, two of the last Ute Mountain Utes who can weave traditional baskets and speak Ute, led schoolteachers in the traditional craft.

Cantsee and Denetsosie demonstrated how to split the reeds with their teeth and begin weaving them into a basket.

For the teachers, it was something new.

"My fingers and teeth hurt," said Roman Hassell, a seventh-grade social studies teacher from Columbine Middle School in Montrose.

The teachers were invited to the workshop as part of a Teaching American History federal grant awarded to Ignacio School District.

Educators are completing the first year of the grant program, which could be worth up to $1.7 million over five years. Ignacio educators are leading the local version of the program, called the Four Corners Community History Project.

The project teaches local history alongside American history.

"You don't denigrate or diminish the American story a bit," said Michael Welsh, a University of Northern Colorado history professor who is director of the local project. "You strengthen the local story."

Jim Goss, a retired anthropology professor who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Southern Ute language, said it's important to get a "more balanced view of the tribe."

"Most of what Anglo-Americans seem to know about the tribe is very stereotypic," he said. "This is a chance for teachers to get to know people who know Native American tradition today."

The Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum sponsored the basket-weaving workshop.

"We're reteaching teachers how to teach, especially Ute history and Native American history," said museum director Lynn Brittner.

A versatile new museum is under construction in Ignacio where the tribe could hold a workshop on how to skin a deer while also exhibiting traditional baskets from White Mesa, Utah.

The museum is slated to open in June 2011.

Southern Ute tribal historian James Jefferson looked on at the basket weaving in appreciation.

"We're trying to bring out the old ways and customs that the tribe used to do," he said.

Cantsee and Denetsosie, her daughter, laughed when asked what it's like to teach white people how to weave baskets.

"We enjoy them," Cantsee said.

Cantsee said the baskets are made from squaw bush willows. The basket is "used for everything," she said.

"Some people use it for a medicine basket. Some people use it for a wedding basket," she said.

Brittner said the market for getting good willows has become increasingly competitive. The group was scheduled to later tour the banks of the Pine River to search for willows and discuss the river's ecology.

Cantsee said the edible berries from the same plant make delicious juice.

Basket weaving long has run in Cantsee's family, she said.

"My grandmother used to sell them for less than $5, $10 a basket," she said. "Now they cost a lot."

chuck@duranogherald.com