When warm and humid, birch bark can be folded into baskets – a container for berries or a cradle for babies.

But when it is not fresh from the birch, the bark can be inflexible. And folding may be the hardest part, according to the dozen women who made baskets on Monday at the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai.

Yet despite the technical difficulties, their instructor sang their praises.

“They are doing really well. The bark is hard, it is really hard. But look, they do it anyway, ”said Helen Dick, a Dena’ina elder. She learned to make birch bark baskets from her grandmother, who grew up in Lime Village, near Lake Clark.

Now she also teaches others how to make them – one of the Monday crafting classes offered by the Kenaitze tribe.

Dick said his grandmother would fill birch baskets with hot water to cook the food. They used the leftovers as a pain reliever.

Back home, she often peels the bark from the tree. But when this is not possible, the bark has to spend days soaking in water to become more malleable.

However, folding requires a little patience.

“This bark is old,” group member Linda Ross said. “It has been in storage for a few years. And so it’s not flexible the way it should be, like we’re going into the woods and getting it fresh – but you only get it in the spring.

It was a sticking point for some. Rose Guilbeau accidentally tore part of her first basket as she tried to fold up the corners like an envelope.

“The first time I tried a little one,” she said. “But it didn’t work and crashed into me. And now it’s my second time.

The second time went better than the first. Guilbeau and the other students wrapped another layer of bark around the top edge of the basket, then added a willow branch to keep the structure high and stiff. They used pliers to hold the whole thing in place and punched holes in the two layers of bark with an awl for the seam.

While she was working, Barb Norbeck thought about how she could use her basket. She considered hanging it on the wall as a decoration.

Or, she says, she could use it as a basket for bread.

“Because while I’m telling you about it and thinking about it – yes, I think that’s what I’m going to do,” she said. “And I’m going to have to look up the Ojibwe word for ‘bread.’ Because that’s what I am, Ojibwe. And I’m going to want that to be part of the name of this room. “

This basket was Norbeck’s first. Ross was preparing the fourth – a wide, shallow container with a light exterior and a dark interior.

“She learns pretty fast,” Dick said.

“With your help,” Ross said.

Bessie Phillip, a wellness assistant at the Dena’ina Wellness Center, said classes like this are a great opportunity for students, many of whom are Dena’ina Elders, to socialize. This fall, they made slippers and earrings from salmon skin.

She said it was difficult to cancel classes for COVID-19.

“Oh my God, it was so depressing,” she said.

Now they can work together again, masked and distributed around a large conference room.

Back in the classroom, each student added their finishing touches – a row of tendon stitches at the top to hold the basket together. Marion Keyes carefully woven the thin rod in and out of the edge of her little basket.

“It’s going to fit on a wall next to my son’s basket that he made for me years ago before he died,” she said.

Her son learned to make a dick basket at a culture camp. They learned together how to make ulus with wooden handles.

“It was really a special time to learn how to do these things with my son,” she said.

She is sad to love making baskets because she can create useful things from nature, rather than buying plastic containers.

The practice also means a lot to her after being told for so much of her life that she should assimilate to non-natives. culture.

“It’s doing something I should have learned as a little girl,” she says. My grandfather was an East Wood Indian, an Abenaki and a Penobscot. And I never learned anything like it. I was always taught Catholic school stuff and regular stuff for non-natives. My mother and father seemed to be ashamed that my mother was Aboriginal.

Another way Keyes finds a connection to her Indigenous culture, she said, is through language. She is learning to speak Tlingit.

Dick is one of the few people who can still speak Dena’ina, a highly endangered language. She teaches Dena’ina classes.

As with language, she said, making baskets involves a lot of trial and error.

“Everything we try to learn, we always make mistakes,” she said. “And we keep trying, and then we do. I saw my grandma make mistakes, she always said, ‘Try again.’ “

This is a lesson that will last long after the birch bark dries.