Spruce-Root Collecting in Yakutat
Tongass National Forest, Chatham Area, Alaska, 1999
by Karen Iwamoto, FS Archaeologist
The spring of 1999 brought many challenges; one was “La Niña.” While enjoying the unusually warm summer El Niño brought, we discussed the possibility of a spruce-root collection project in Yakutat in the spring of 1999 to obtain materials for making basketry. Yakutat was the birthplace of Tlingit basketry, because of ideal circumstances for finding the perfect roots—lots and lots of sandy beaches. And so a project was hatched, thanks in part to Ken Wilson on the Six Rivers NF and his “Following the Smoke” PIT project. Our project would involve volunteers coming to Yakutat to learn about gathering, preparing, and splitting spruce roots through hands-on efforts. Knowing how fickle the weather can be, we left the dates flexible in the PIT Traveler, committing to five days during a two-week opening.
Our fall was relatively mild, with no snow until January. And then it snowed, and snowed, and snowed! As March rolled around, reports were coming in from Yakutat that the snow was meeting in the middle, from the ground up and from the roofs down. March passed, still snowing! Surely in April the snows would quit. That was the month we’d scheduled for our PIT project, after the ground warms up a bit and before the new spruce tips start to show. In early April, I called the volunteers to tell them the project was delayed. Of course, everyone had already bought their supersaver airline tickets! We delayed the project for two more weeks, until the week of May 10. During the last week of April, it was still snowing!La Niña was doing her best to derail this project.
The week of May 10 turned out to be a most spectacular week. The volunteers arrived, all six eager to learn how to collect and prepare roots. Four came from Washington state—Norma McGraw, Vicki Lash, Jan Smith, and Sin-grid Salo—and two came from Idaho—Connie O’Marra and Ron Jenkins. Almost all have a background in weaving or certainly an interest in the art form. We were extremely fortunate to receive instruction from Teri Rofkar and her daughter Erin Rofkar in the gathering and processing of roots. Both are experienced Tlingit weavers, and Teri is a magnificent instructor.
Teri shared slides of Yakutat basketry currently housed in museums in New York and Chicago. Baskets from Yakutat were highly sought after and prized by early explorers and collectors; they were truly the most exquisite of all Tlingit basketry. We spread the word about our project around Yakutat and invited anyone in the community to please come and join us. Tuesday morning we were joined by Jennie Wheeler from Yakutat, and our collecting began.
Still limited on where we could go because of the snow, we drove to the end of the road, walked out to the fringe of the trees on the forest, and began to dig. It’s not an intensive digging but more of a gentle coaxing; following the “runner” roots over and under each other and mixed in with the “feeders.” After about three hours of collecting, we took our roots to the beach. There we built a huge bonfire and roasted the roots; all it took was a quick 20–30-second cooking on a very large bed of coals. After the roasting, we stripped the roots of their outer bark by pulling them through an ena, a split stick driven into the ground. The end result is a beautiful, perfectly white root.
After the roasting and stripping, the work really began; splitting the roots in half, splitting that half in half, and for the really talented (not this author!), splitting that quarter one more time until there would be one “weaver” (the rounded edge of the root) and 2–3 warps (ribs) per half of the original root. Teri and Erin estimated that for every hour spent collecting, you will spend five hours roasting and splitting. Indeed!
By the third evening, the experienced weavers were ready to learn how to weave a spruce root basket. By the following morning, those who had the fortitude to stay up late the night before had the bottoms of small baskets started. We continued to collect, roast, and split roots. In the evenings, those who were not weaving concentrated on splitting. By the end of the week, we had collected and split two boxes of spruce roots ready for weaving.
The most rewarding aspect of this project was that we left those two boxes full of split roots to be used by the people of Yakutat. One will go to the schools, so that the children can learn the art of weaving spruce-root basketry. The other will go to the NPS in Yakutat for use in their traditional art programs. Cedar-bark weaving has been taught through this program, but never spruce-root weaving, most likely because the collection and preparation process is intensive and time sensitive and few people know the process anymore. There are no longer any knowledgeable spruce-root weavers alive in Yakutat today. What Yakutat does have, however, is a generation of young artists eager to learn the art form. Through the efforts of these PIT volunteers to gather the roots, and the enthusiasm of Teri Rofkar to teach the artists in Yakutat the art of spruce-root weaving, Yakutat may, once again, be known as “the place where the finest Tlingit spruce root basketry comes from.”