Even when the red willow wood Georgianna Houle uses to make baskets cuts and gnaws into her hands, she keeps working.
Pain isn’t a good enough reason to stop something she loves and feels a deep-rooted family and cultural connection to, she says. It’s that inherent focus that made Houle one of this year’s First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award winners.
“I was surprised and very happy to be selected,” said Houle, who lives on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota.
Her grandmother, who first discovered the art by watching a migratory worker as they rode a freight train to work, passed down the tradition of basket making to her. She formed a deep bond with her grandmother, Selina, who also taught her how to sew dolls and do beadwork. When it came to learning how to make baskets from her mother and grandmother, Houle said it didn’t come easy.
“It was really hard for me at first,” she says. “My mother would challenge me.”
The baskets, which are made with red willow found near her home, can be used as decoration or for use around the home to hold items such as bread, laundry, or business cards, depending on the size. The wood, which is also referred to as Dogwood, must be picked before the spring and summer season. It has to be cleaned, and then shaved to reveal the signature colors associated with the baskets.
The work is worth it, Houle says, who has spent several years visiting local schools and community colleges, explaining the art form and giving hands-on training.
Her baskets have been sold regionally and some of her grandmother’s baskets have been displayed in the Smithsonian Institute. Selling her work has helped support her family, she says, and it’s always exciting when a customer takes the time to admire the art form.
“I’m grateful they are appreciative of my art,” she adds.
It has also been a way to focus on the positive while living on the reservation. Making the baskets, which require so much time and focus, is a way to relax and pray, she says.
Houle, who has received business training from First Peoples Fund, hopes to start a business selling more of the baskets. She has also partnered with the Turtle Mountain Tribal Arts Association, which has a location in Belcourt. The Community Spirit Award, she says, is a wonderful, meaningful compliment.
“I feel really honored to be selected, and honored for my mother and grandmother who passed it on to me,” she says.