Kelly Church’s Sustaining Traditions–Digital Memories

Meet the Artists of Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists

A oval artwork with green and gold material woven into it.

Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi), Sustaining Traditions—Digital Memories, 2018, black ash, sweetgrass, Rit dye, copper, vial EAB, and flash drive with black ash teachings, Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Richard Church, Odawa-Pottawatomi. © Kelly Church

Artist’s Language

Ozhaawaashkwaa gaa izhi aabajichigaadeg ji- aawechigaazod mayagi-manidoons. A’aw mayagi-manidoons ogii nishi’aan wiisagaakoon, ge chinendaagozinid wii giizhenindaagwag agogobinaaganan, gabeya’iing giiwedinong Naawi-Gichimookomaanaki. O’gii atoon o’ow agogobinaaganing, ge Fabergé waawan ezhi naagwag (gichitwaa-naagwadoon waawanoon gaa gizhenindaagwag wiikaa 1800’s ako wiiba 1900’s), mikwendamojiganens izhi teg ge Kelly Church idang “gakina gaa gikinoo’amaagoyang, gakina noongom izhiwebag, dash gakina geyabi daa izhichigeyang niigaan-nakeyaang wii zhaabwiitoon o’ow izhitwaawin [agogobinaaganikewin].”


The green in this basket represents the emerald ash borer. This beautiful insect has destroyed ash trees, essential to making ash baskets, throughout the Upper Midwest. Placed within this basket, which is shaped like a Fabergé egg (jeweled eggs made in the late 1800s and early 1900s), is a flash drive containing what Kelly Church describes as “all the teachings of the past, all of the things happening today, and all of the things we need to do in the future to sustain this tradition [basket weaving].”


Kelly Church, Odawa and Pottawatomi, born 1967
Sustaining Traditions–Digital Memories, 2018

Harvesting is the most important part of the whole relationship of what we have, of what we do. It’s our connection to the earth. It’s where the teaching starts. You have to know your environment. We have to be botanists, we have to know our woods. We have to be entomologists these days. We have to know about bugs. We have to recognize if the trees are in the first stage of the emerald ash borer.

[Speaking Native Language] Kelly Church. Hopkins, Michigan.

My piece speaks about the past and the present together. The color of the Fabergé egg is a green, because we have this emerald ash borer that is killing all of the ash trees in the United States. And the emerald ash borer is this brilliant, beautiful green, but it’s so destructive. And today, people love beauty. They love beautiful things. So I try to make something that’s beautiful to draw them in and then when you open it up, you learn about a bug. It’s not just about a beautiful basket, it’s about everything that goes with it.

So when we do go into the woods, there might be 40 black ash trees, but only one to four black ash trees that are going to be suitable for baskets. So a basket tree is much different than just a black ash tree.

Our black ash teachings also teach us to work together because we cannot do this job alone. We need our men to help us carry trees. Our children are always watching, and so we have to set those examples for them of helping who needs help. So it’s combining the old traditions of the past with the new technology of today, trying to teach in a way that we have always taught, but also teaching in a way that the children or the future people understand.