Plainfield tree bark basketmaker inspired by Native American ancestry

By BERA DUNAU

Staff Writer

Published: 09-17-2021 4:47 PM

PLAINFIELD — Jennifer Lee is maintaining the traditional Native American craft of making tree bark baskets, using materials she harvests from her own property.

Lee learned how to make the baskets from a combination of being taught by other Native Americans, historical research and her own artistic work.

“Once I started making baskets I couldn’t stop,” she said.

Lee is of Narragansett descent but did not grow up knowing she was Native American until finding documentation of her ancestry later in life.

“I stand between my ancestors and my kids,” Lee said, who also said that she can “never stop learning.”

She noted, however, that someone learning of their heritage is different from people who are raised with their heritage, and she tries to be respectful of that.

Lee said that she has always been interested in Native American culture and history, and through her studies, she kept hearing about bark, which was used for the construction of both baskets and wigwams.

She made her first basket in the early 1980s.

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She has lived on her property in Plainfield since 1990 and has been in western Massachusetts since 1984. She gets the bark for her baskets from trees — mainly ash and pine — that are cut on her property, most of which are encroaching onto her gardens. She has them cut down when the bark can easily slip from the wood.

“The trees have made a way for me to celebrate the culture, to share it,” she said.

She also noted that her children and grandchildren have harvested bark with her.

The baskets Lee makes use no glue and are held together with spruce roots, with the rims made from red willow.

Lee said she usually sells her baskets at powwows, but COVID-19 greatly reduced such opportunities. Since the pandemic hit, she has sold at just one event, as well as to people she knows. Her baskets sell from $40 to $600.

She also teaches bark basket making to others, including at a number of Native American reservations.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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