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April Stone's fingers dance across the narrow, supple strips of black ash wood, softened in water to make it pliable.
Over, under, over, under. They're the hands of a strong woman, forged by thousands of hours of beating on ash logs to extract the precious layers of wood locked inside, and then turning those layers into baskets of all sorts and sizes.
Stone, 50, is Native American, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, and she's the only member known to practice what seems certain to be an ancient craft.
But the craft was lost in recent generations, with no oral history passed along on how to transform a tree into a flexible, sturdy and utilitarian tool used for everything from baking bread to toting around babies. So about 20 years ago, Stone set out on a journey to rediscover the art – from photos, from members of other tribes and from museum pieces.
She's still on that journey, still learning even as she teaches the art to an apprentice and frets over the threat that emerald ash borers pose.
And along the way, she discovered something just as important as an ancient craft. She discovered herself.
Bad River roots
Stone was born in Chicago, one of five kids raised by her father, a carpenter,
woodworker and Bad River member, and her mom, a Caucasian retail worker. When she was a baby, the family moved from Chicago back to Odanah where Stone went to school. She eventually finished classes in Ashland, but not without going through an identity crisis.
Stone's father was raised in the reprehensible days of Indian boarding schools, when Native American kids were sent away from their homes, families and reservations and forbidden to do anything — speak their own language, sing their own songs, tell their own stories or even wear their hair in traditional ways — reminiscent of their own culture.
They instead were immersed in European-American culture, taught to be "civilized" Indians.
As a result of that painful time, her father never passed along any Native traditions or stories to April, leaving her in middle school "wondering who I was and what I was all about and where I fit it," she said — more than typical teenage angst.
"I really had no direction," she said. "I never thought I would go to college or anything. I thought I was just going to get married and have a bunch of babies."
She ended up cleaning hotel rooms and waitressing to put herself through a two-year program on natural resources management at Northland College, her goal to be a forest ranger and work with her tribe.
It didn't exactly work out.
She began using alcohol and other drugs, and ended up living out of her car, camping in an Ashland park.
Then she ran into an old boyfriend from school. They clicked again, bought an old school bus and turned it into a tiny home. She got pregnant with the first of their four kids and they started a new life, eventually building a small cabin on the southern edge of the Bad River Reservation — land she still lives on today.
A new path
She and her husband were casting about, trying to figure out life when the both enrolled in a class at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn. She learned how to work with felt, and he learned to make a basket.
"I was so empowered by these felt booties I made, and he was empowered by his basket," Stone said. "But I looked at his basket and was like, 'What's the big deal? It's a basket. You can buy them at Goodwill.' Then, six months later, the booties had holes in them and his basket was still going strong. So I learned something there."
Her husband continued to use his basket, turning it into a lunch pail and watching as it got used, got dirty, developed its own patina.
At the end of a year, it finally gave way — the lashing around the top of the basket failed.
And that changed Stone's life.
"I don't know exactly what happened in that moment, but I know something woke up inside me," she said. "I developed this deep respect for the material in just an instant. I said to myself, 'I have to fix that basket,' and I asked him to teach me how to make one."
Her husband taught her, but something was missing.
Just about every culture on earth has developed its own method of weaving — of turning plant material of some sort into baskets used for gathering clams on the coasts or storing grain in the Midwest.
But Stone could find no record of Ojibwe basketmaking. She studied pictures in books, watched videos, talked to elders, but got nowhere.
It was strange. All around Ojibwe country, in Minnesota, Michigan and southern Wisconsin, Native Americans still were making baskets.
"Was it even a part of our culture?" she wondered. "I hear everyone talking about birch bark, which is used in lots of things, but not black ash. What's up with that?"
As she was searching, she also was learning. She found that the perfect black ash tree to yield wood for a basket began with a tall, straight, branch-free trunk, and that it was best harvested in the middle of summer — just about the worst time to be tromping around in a Wisconsin swamp.
She adopted the traditional method of harvesting strips of wood, by cutting the trunk into five-or six-foot lengths, then peeling the bark off by hand and repeatedly pounding the rings of wood underneath until the log released them.
She experimented a lot, and built then tore apart and then rebuilt a lot of baskets.
"I learned how to make flat material go around a corner," Stone said. "I learned to scrape and to split. And I developed my own style, which I later learned is called "utilitarian."
At the same time, Stone also was learning about herself and the role her Native heritage would play in her life.
As she traveled across the Upper Midwest, into Canada and to the East Coast on her quest to rediscover the lost art, she discovered some of the basket-making traditions of other tribes.
She developed a theory about why the Ojibwe might have lost the art: All those other tribes, on the East Coast, around the Wisconsin Dells or Fox Valley, had frequent contact with visitors. They began making baskets and purses and other trinkets for sale to tourists.
But the Chequamegon Bay was pretty far off the beaten path. With no tourist trade, maybe locals had no reason to keep the craft alive.
Then, in a galvanizing discovery, she came upon an old family photo of her great-grandmother, Margaret Rabideaux, holding a baby that she believes to be her grandmother. In the background is a basket.
"That's my connection," Stone said. "But I was still searching for baskets from all over. I found one in the collection on Madeline Island that says, 'Ashland WI 1902.' It's an Indian-made basket that has qualities I've seen on the East Coast and qualities I've seen in southern Wisconsin. So I know I'm on the right track."
As she learned, Stone became more and more perplexed by her own lack of knowledge about her culture.
And she got angry with her father for not passing it along — anger that came to a head when she confronted him, and he explained how he was punished in school for any Native traditions.
Today, the two get along great and they celebrate their Native culture. So the basket-making not only has given her a livelihood, it also gave her a new relationship with her dad.
And she finally has discovered who she is. She's known around the reservation now as "the basket lady."
The looming threat
Today Stone teaches her craft at workshops all over the country and as far away as England. She's an instructor at Northland College, and her spare time is consumed almost entirely by made-to-order baskets.
They range from the size of soda can, which takes her about 30 minutes to weave and could be used to store pencils or other sundries, up to large pack baskets with leather harnesses that can carry 50 pounds, take days to make and sell for $450. She even makes baskets that are treated with bear fat or oil and used to bake bread.
She still makes them all by hand with no tacks or nails, no glue or chemicals, no synthetic dyes.
Every June or July she ventures into a Bad River swamp, puts some tobacco down and says a prayer to a tree, promising that though she is going to kill it by cutting it down, she will give it lasting life as a basket.
But now she worries about how much longer she'll be able to do that.
Everywhere the invasive emerald ash borer beetle has appeared, it has left nothing but dead ash trees in its wake. There is no treatment to save trees and the bugs have no natural predators.
They're inching closer to Bad River every year — a fact that Stone believes should serve as a lesson to all of us.
"A plastic bag has a useful life of about 10 or 15 seconds," she said. "Then it ends up in a landfill or in the ocean. What if we could only use baskets, which last forever, to get our groceries or whatever? And you could only take what fits in that basket? Wouldn't we all learn a lot more about consumerism and conservation?"
Stone said it is no coincidence that the Ojibwe word for "bug" translates as "little spirit." She believes the ash borers are spirits sent here to teach our consumer-driven culture to reflect.
"What is this little spirit trying to impart to us?" she said. "Maybe it's that we need to change. Haven't we made enough mistakes with the natural world?"
What won't change is Stone's commitment to continuing her craft, continuing to weave baskets that she intends to be used, not hung on a wall or put on a shelf as decoration.
"They're just exquisite and awesome," said Bad River member Fred Vande Venter, who owns some of Stone's weaving.
"She's just a very wonderful woman," he said. "I've had the opportunity to meet her briefly a few times, and her work just makes me feel more attached to my culture."
Stone isn't sure, given the threat to ash trees, that she'll forever be working with that material. But she said she'll never stop learning, never stop trying to trace her own culture and craft back to its origins.
"Maybe what this borer is doing is allowing something to come and take the ash's place," she said. "Maybe the willow wants to be woven with now. Maybe the grapevine wants to be woven with. Maybe they are asking for attention now. If that's what they want, I will give them my attention."
See her work: To watch video of Stone preparing a log for weaving, visit this story online.
As the weather warms and the ice recedes on Chequamegon Bay, the racing season is coming to an end.
But the track that drew hundreds of racers and spectators to the shore this winter promise to be back next season with more cars, more fans and more fun.
"We always have had a good number of spectators," said Ashland Ice Racing board member Joyce Barningham, a Mason resident and accounts receivable clerk at Northern Clearing whose father Steve started racing on the bay 33 years ago.
"This year is definitely at an all-time high. We average 80-100 vehicles parked around our 3/8th-mile track. We love to see that. It gets a lot of people wanting to join the sport and we hope it will just keep continuing to grow in the years to come."
Those 80 to 100 cars passersby might have seen on Ashland's west end in recent weeks all ventured out on the ice filled with fans, many from outside the Bay area.
Brian Eccles and Greg Clark made the trip from Superior for the Battle of the Bay races
held on Feb. 27-28. Both have experience being passengers in cars competing at AIR races.
"It's a lot of fun," said Eccles. The passenger seats of racecars often are retrofitted so the rider sits looking backward – acting as a navigator for the driver. "The car slides quite a bit. You let your driver know where the other cars are coming up from behind."
Greg Clark agreed that having some navigation can be helpful.
"The cars will go right around," Clark said. "You come in the corner a little too hot, it really is stock car racing on ice. The cars can be sliding all over the place."
Eccles's nephew Zach West, also from Superior, was racing in car 29 during the Battle of the Bay with Zach's brother Nick along as a first-time passenger. Zach West had a rough go during one of the four heats in which he competed.
"I slid off the track," he said. "You have to watch everything. Don't spin out. Let off on the gas and get set for the corners, then step on it during the straightaways. It's a thrill, it's fun, and I'm here with family and friends."
The cars themselves are designed not to slide off — though it's inevitable at the speeds they hit.
On what Barningham described as "power days," when there is good traction, cars will hit 60 to 70 mph. Rules require helmets for all drivers plus mandatory vehicle modifications such as studs in front tires and added reinforcement for front doors. Roll bars, too, are recommended.
Many fans and competitors are from the Bay Area, but a good deal come from farther away to watch the speeding, sliding events. Some even have experienced ice racing themselves.
Family is a key part of the AIR experience, perhaps demonstrated no more clearly than by Barningham's family.
"Currently we have three different Barninghams that race right now," Joyce Barningham said. "Ryan and Tyler, and Ryan's son Patrick – he races the number 7 car that belonged to his uncle Jordan Barningham, who passed away two years ago. We also have other guys that race just like their dads used to back in the day, including Shawn McFadden Jr. and Donny Livingston to name a couple."
Among the racers, the Barninghams took the top the three spots in the 2021 season standings, with Ryan taking first place, followed by Tyler and Patrick. Trophies will be handed out, and that is satisfaction enough, Joyce Barningham said.
"The ice races aren't a career. It's more just a fun hobby," she said. "It's an affordable way for people to be able to race. We give the racers a little payout after every race day. At the end of the season the top 10 drivers of the year receive trophies. It's a fun event to be a part of to fill the long winter months with a little activity every Sunday."
About that activity? Brian Eccles shared an observation.
"It's exciting," he said. "You get in, sit down, shut up, and hang on."
For more info: Depending on the weather, AIR hosts races from the first full weekend in January until the second weekend in March. Complete details on AIR can be found on the Ashland Ice Racing Facebook page.
With an increasing amount of COVID-19 vaccine making its way into Ashland and Bayfield counties, health officials are cautiously optimistic that just over a year after it began, the pandemic may at last be in the process of being reined in.
In Bayfield County, more than 68% of the most vulnerable population, those aged 65 and over, had received at least one dose of vaccine as of March 8. All told, 31%t of the county's population has received at least a first dose, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
In Ashland County, DHS reports that 73% of the county's over-65 population has received at least a first dose of vaccine, with 26.8% of the county overall population getting at least a first dose.
The amount of vaccine being released to the counties is also steadily increasing. During the week of Feb. 28, a total of 1,066 doses were given to Bayfield County residents, while in Ashland County, the total was 1,263 doses.
Bayfield County Public Health Officer Sara Wartman said cases of COVID continue to decline in the county.
"We are doing well. Over the last two weeks, we dropped from the high category to the medium category in active cases. We are getting between two and seven cases every two weeks, which is far more manageable than it had been in November," she said.
Back in November the Department was getting reports of 20 cases a day, Wartman recalled.
"It was incredible. It was very frustrating. It felt like we were never going to be able to get back on track," she said. "We had a critically high level of COVID across the state."
Wartman said she was uncertain as to why the infection totals have declined so dramatically, but suspects several factors are in play, including the buildup of people who already had the disease and are no longer able to pass it on, growing numbers of people who have had the vaccine, and better observation of masking, hand-washing and observing social distancing rules.
Wartman said her impression was that the general public would be able to start getting their vaccinations by
June. She said it would likely take until April to finish vaccinating essential workers including grocery and convenience store clerks, as well as people involved in the food chain. The situation will be different in each county, depending on demographics.
"But if you look at northern Wisconsin, Bayfield, Ashland and Iron counties are clearly doing OK compared to the state averages," Wartman said.
She cautioned against using those improvements as an excuse to abandon masks, and social distancing.
"I am worried about spring break. I am worried about people itching to travel, coming home with new variants of the virus, and then seeing another increase in cases," Wartman said.
Another concern will be the hesitancy of people to take the vaccine, once it becomes more available. She said that up to 15% of the population could refuse to take the vaccine.
"That could be very harmful to the health of the community as a whole," she said.
Meanwhile in Ashland County, Health Officer Liz Szot said the successful vaccination program has been as the result of community partners including Memorial Medical Center, Essentia Health, NorthLakes Clinic, St. Luke's Clinic, the School District of Ashland and the County Health Service.
"It has been fantastic. Everybody has put in so much time and everyone has worked so well to gether.
Szot said at the beginning of the process, there was concern that the infrastructure to deliver the vaccines would not be available, but she said that hasn't proven to be the case.
"It was very daunting starting out, knowing that that the 65-plus population alone was around 19% of our population, or roughly 3,000 people," Szot said.
At this point, the shortage of vaccine is the limiting factor in the effort to vaccinate the entire population, Szot said.
"We are very hopeful that the supply will catch up to meet the demand as time goes on," she said. "With the Johnson & Johnson vaccine being approved now, we are hopeful that will help ease the supply and demand bottleneck."
Szot also noted that different pharmaceutical manufacturers are also in discussions about increasing the supply of vaccine even as Ashland County is seeing a "fairly steady" decline in infections.
"We actually had a period of a full seven days without any active cases being reported," she said. "We still have a few cases being reported here and there, and our contact tracers are still making contact with them."
Szot said she too is concerned about the upcoming spring break.
"I am hopeful that we will not see a spike, but I am still concerned, es pecially with the emergence of the variants that we know about," she said. "They are more easily contagious. If people go on vacation and become lax in their mask-wearing or socialdistancing, they could bring them back."