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Henry Jake Arquette. Photo courtesy TAUNY Archives/Martha Cooper
Henry Jake Arquette. Photo courtesy TAUNY Archives/Martha Cooper

Mohawk basketmaker receives highest NEA honor

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Mohawk basket maker Henry Jake Arquette has won the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, a 2014 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Arquette specializes in the ash-splint utility baskets traditionally made by the Akwesasne Mohawks: packbaskets, laundry and picnic baskets, baskets for washing corn and "wedding" baskets.

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According to TAUNY, Arquette is one of a very few Mohawks who still make utilitarian baskets from hand-pounded black ash splints.

Pounding black ash for basket-making

Black ash is one of the sources of raw material for Native American basket makers. They de-bark and then pound the logs to produce long, pliable strips. Henry Arquette showed NCPR’s Gregory Warner how to make splints from a black ash log in 2007:

Henry Arquette: Okay, when you do this you’ve gotta hit every inch of this log.

Gregory Warner: 74 year old Henry Arquette is a Awkwesasne Mohawk and basket maker. I joined him in his basement workshop on the reservation.

HA: When I was a kid I would get up in the morning and most people done it outside. And you can hear people all over the place pounding logs—that sound carries a long ways.

GW: After Arquette pounds the wood, he peels it. The strips are malleable—good for weaving.

GW: It’s incredible that it just comes off in strips of that”

HA: “Yeah, when you pound it that’s what loosens it.

GW: No other kind of tree does that?

HA: I’ve never tried any other kind of trees. This is what they’ve been doing for generations. It works—they knew what they were doing, I guess.

Martha Foley has two picnic baskets made by Arquette, one from the 1970s, and a new one in case the old one ever wears out. Photo: Martha Foley
Martha Foley has two picnic baskets made by Arquette, one from the 1970s, and a new one in case the old one ever wears out. Photo: Martha Foley
Arquette was an ironworker who spent much of his adult life working on construction of bridges and skyscrapers in eastern cities. He learned to make baskets from his father. Now he’s the teacher. Dozens have taken his classes over the years. 

Mohawks are known for their sweetgrass “fancy baskets,” made mostly by women and sold for souvenir or decorative purposes.

But Arquette makes much older baskets, designs that have long served as work baskets: pack baskets, market baskets, corn washers, picnic baskets, and more. His baskets are known for their strength and durability, as well as their beauty. 

Since 1982, the NEA has honored 17 basketmakers. However, this is the first time an artist practicing Mohawk basketweaving is receiving this award.

NEA Chairman Jane Chu said that among these thirteen recipients of NEA National Heritage and Jazz Masters Fellowships there is a recurring theme. “Starting at a young age, these individuals were exposed to the arts. Today these artists' passion for their art can be seen both in their long and dedicated careers and their willingness to share their knowledge with new audiences."

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