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Participants Find Roots at Gathering and Harvesting Class

By Marilyn Craig, The John Hair Cultural Center and Museum

TAHLEQUAH, OK. — Sometimes unforgettable days begin slowly. Saturday, February 10, was one of those days, and it officially began for the Keetoowah museum’s Gathering and Harvesting, “Getting Back to Basics” class at 10 a.m. Luckily, it was a nice day, as days in February go. Cool, but sunny. Gathering, boiling, and stripping buckbrush, along with many different conversations sprinkled with laughter, made it a day to remember.


Buckbrush is a traditional basket-making material the Keetoowah people have used for eons. It grows in the old homelands and many parts of the US, as well as in Indian Territory. The species name for buckbrush is Symphoricarpos Orticulatus, and it is also known as a coralberry or Indian current. It is a member of the honeysuckle f

amily. This thicket-forming shrub bears dense clusters of pinkish-red berries that are present most of the winter.


Buckbrush is a slender, erect, or ascending, thicket-forming shrub that spreads by roots, usually 2–4 feet tall. Most of the stems are upright to arching, but some creep almost vinelike along the ground, where they send out runners for several feet and root to form new thickets. The bark is brown, peeling into small, short flakes that are easily rubbed off or shredded into long, thin strips; the wood is soft, nearly white, with a small pith.


Buckbrush is an important cover species for wildlife due to its size and abundance of branchlets. Buckbrush is also an important species for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.


The nine women fanned out at the edge of the woods on UKB property and began to look for the buckbrush runners. 


Keetoowah elder and Tradition Keeper Cindy Hair led the class to share her knowledge of traditional lifeways. Hair has been making baskets for over 50 years.


"The first time I made a basket, I used a buckbrush—the real stuff," Hair said. "My mother showed me how to gather the materials and do the whole process because there's a lot to go through when using the buckbrush. I have a big family, and we would all go out there in the woods to get the materials.”


Hair started a fire in the clearing right before the woods began. She then put on a big pot of water to boil. Later, she put the runners in the boiling water and punched them down with a stick occasionally. The basket material had to boil for two and a half to three hours. Then the participants pulled the vines out of the water and, using a rag, began to strip the bark off the runners. After cleaning, the vines were wound into a coil, to be used later to make a basket.


The most popular natural materials for making baskets include buckbrush, honeysuckle, and rivercane. Black walnut hulls, blood root, and berries are often used as natural dyes. And many choose commercial reeds and commercially manufactured dyes.


The class was the first in the Keetoowah Museum’s Winter/Spring Gathering and Harvesting

series. The next class will be gathering wild onions and is set for March 9. On April 8, the class will learn how to catch and clean fish. The catch of the day will be cooked right there and will be paired with beans, wild onions, and eggs.


The “Getting Back to Basics Series" is a program designed and developed by JHCCM Assistant Director Barbara Girty Foster.


“At a time when many things are too new and confusing, something old and familiar feels very comforting. Growing, harvesting, and preserving food is one of those practices. It is also a way to connect with our ancestors, who had no choice but to hunt and gather food. It takes us back to our roots and back to nature, and for many of us, it is a great place to be,” said Girty Foster.

Photo 1: Participants of the Gathering and Harvesting Class (back row) Hollie Goins, Destini Goins, Kim Hair (middle row) Carolyn Swimmer, Janelle Adair, and Shelia Bluebird (front) Cindy Hair

Photo 2: Mother/Daughter duo, Destini Goins, and Hollie Goins trim their buckbrush runners. Hollie has attended every class in the “Getting Back to Basics” Series over the past year. 



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