Rose and Francis Cree are highly respected Ojibwe elders on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in north central North Dakota. As is the case with many elders, their lives reflect the intersection of artistic skill, tribal knowledge, and cultural authority. The Crees collaborate in making willow baskets, both collecting the materials, while Francis makes the frames from ash and Rose weaves the willows. Both are also storytellers and keepers of Ojibwe cultural knowledge. Francis is a singer, a spiritual leader, a carver of pipes, and a keeper of the ceremonial drum for the Dunseith community.
In addition, both Rose and Francis Cree teach young people in their community about Ojibwe culture through school programs. They mentor local youth and participate in the North Dakota apprenticeship program. In 1984, the Crees received the North Dakota Governor's Award for the Arts. The Crees set an important example, according to North Dakota folklorist Troyd Geist. "We would like to see this humble, generous, and artistic couple recognized nationally not only for the quality of the artistic traditions they uphold but also for showing us that traditional art is not apart from other aspects of life, that it is a way of life."
NEA: I wanted to congratulate you on your award. What was your reaction when you heard the news.
CREE: Oh, I was really surprised, you know. I never thought we'd get anything like this.
NEA: Could you tell me how you learned to make baskets?
CREE: I was sixteen years old when I started learning from my mother. My mother learned from her mother and from other ladies in the community. They all worked together. I started learning from my ma how to do the basket weaving, how to collect the willow and make the ash frame. First you make the frames for your basket, then do the weaving.
NEA: Tell me about collecting the willow.
CREE: You get the younger willow, the seedlings. We pick them up in the spring and freeze them so we have willows for the summer.
NEA: Does the freezing change the basket making process?
CREE: It keeps them damp. They're fresh after you take them out of the freezer. A long time ago we just stuck them in water. But now, in the summertime, we freeze them.
NEA: Do you think it changes the traditional nature of the basket?
CREE: It does, but the willow's still the same color.
NEA: Tell me more about the traditional colors and designs.
CREE: We use brown, red and white in our designs. The brown willow comes in three colors. Some are buckskin color, some are darker brown. I think they just go according to the weather. In the spring they're a little lighter, then later on they turn a little brown. Right now they'll be fully brown. You get three colors out of them.
Then we get the natural red willow, that's all the same color all the time. We use two kinds of willow, the red willow and the brown willow. To make the white design we scrape the bark off of the willow.
NEA: How did you learn those designs? Did you come up with those or were those passed along?
CREE: I learned it all from my mother, the designs and all that. There's only one design that I make, a diamond design. My grand kids are learning that design too. They put their design out like mine.
NEA: You mentioned that YOU learned from your mother. Were there other basket makers in the community who influenced you?
CREE: Oh yes. There were other old Indian ladies who made baskets. There were about four old ladies altogether, three other ladies besides my mom. And they all made the same kinds of baskets.
We made the clothes baskets and cradle baskets - a basket with a hood - wall baskets, round baskets, oval baskets, duck baskets and turtle baskets. Rabbit baskets. We came up with a lot different designs.
NEA: Are all of those traditional shapes?
CREE: We kind of created these, the duck, the rabbit and the turtle baskets. The turtle baskets were always the leading thing in our tribe.
NEA: Why is the turtle so popular?
CREE: It's spiritual. For the Indian people that's a great spiritual thing.
NEA: Have you been able to teach the next generation in your family?
CREE: Some of my children make baskets and most of my grandchildren do, too.
NEA: How many of your family members are making baskets?
CREE: About 130, I think. I had seven girls, seven boys. Now these young ones, my son's kids, my daughter's kids they have kids, then their children have kids. It's four generations anyway.
NEA: So the basket making really is a family endeavor. How does that feel knowing that the whole family is involved in the process.
CREE: I feel great about their learning about baskets and stuff. The tradition of my ancestors goes on.
You know, in addition to my kids I raised seven of my grand kids and my nephew and my brother. I supported them - I made my living - with basketry. I was busy doing baskets. We were lucky enough to sell all our baskets all the time. That's how we survived. There was no welfare, no nothing at the time. Now they get welfare and Social Security. In my days we didn't have that.
NEA: Are there others that you're teaching?
CREE: I teach in schools and colleges and other places. I go different places to teach but they say it's too hard for them to do. They don't have a strong enough interest to keep at it. It's boring, they say.
NEA: But there are a few who are interested in carrying on the tradition?
CREE: There's only a few that are really interested in learning. Others say it's too hard. But it isn't, you know, once you catch on. It's just like when you're weaving potholders and stuff, it's just the same as that. You go in and out, in and out, you're weaving. It's not really hard after you catch on.
But the framing is hard. We got some safety rules for the kids when we teach, how they should handle their knives. We show them how to use the knife when they're carving the frames. And we tell them not to fool around, not to be bothering each other when they're working. We have them all sit in a circle while we demonstrate how to carve and weave.
NEA: Why do you think that basket making is so valuable to the Ojibwe community?
CREE: Well, that's what they used a long time ago. They did their berry picking and used the baskets for that. Nowadays we use a plastic water pail and plastic ware.
NEA: What makes a good basket?
CREE: If it's made out of ash, a hardwood, it lasts. My husband's mother made a basket about a hundred years ago that we still have. We'll probably take it along when we go to Washington. The willow, though, is kind of brittle. A long time ago the willow was good, you didn't have these chemicals sprayed on the trees. The land was clean. You had the natural willow, the natural ash, the natural trees and all. And now they use all these sprays which messes up the trees, the willow. But we get our willow from up the mountains where they don't use spray.
NEA: Just one last question. What you're looking forward to in the trip to D.C.?
CREE: We're interested to meet all the people from different places. I'm real honored to be chosen for this award and go to Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life.