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  • Ian Thompson

The Plants that Tie Us Together

When we think about Native American clothing of the past, buckskin is the material that usually comes to mind. Rarely do we picture precolonial Native American people wearing cloth. Yet, North America was home to a thriving textile industry for thousands of years before European arrival. For the Choctaw community, the art of traditional textiles has been sleeping for generations. The Choctaw Traditional Textiles Group is working to change that. Last week, the Nan Awaya Heritage Farmstead was honored to host the group’s second meeting. The day got off to a bit of a hectic start. Jennifer and Ian had things set up well in advance of start time, so Ian took the opportunity to go to the local feed store to purchase 800 feet of steal pipe for an upcoming addition to the corral. Ian came back a few minutes after the event was supposed to start, dragging 31-foot long sections of pipe on a 16 ft trailer. Luckily, the first pipe didn’t fall off until he made the turn into our gate. The activities began with a cultural plants walk. Along the way, we harvested some stocks from last year’s crop of wild dogbane (pictured). This native plant, similar to milkweed, has strong bast fibers under its bark, which make superior strength, rot-resistant string, yarn, and cloth. We also took a look at bundle of dogbane stocks that had been retting in the creek for two weeks (rettting is a controlled rotting process that makes it efficient to process plant fibers). After the dogbane, we harvested leaves from wild yucca plants, which contain excellent fibers too. The Textiles Group spent the rest of the day processing the fibers from these plants and also from fresh and retted mulberry inner bark. It’s mesmerizing to watch the process of native plants that grow all around us being transformed into skeins of fine yarn. In addition to the plant fibers, the Choctaw ancestors also made cloth from bison wool. Members of the Choctaw Textiles Group have spun beautiful yarn from naturally shed bison wool picked up at the Nan Awaya Heritage Farmstead. Different parts of a buffalo’s winter coat provide different coarsenesses of wool, ranging from something that is like horse hair to something like cashmere. It was a fun day of interaction and learning that ended much too soon. The Choctaw Traditional Textiles Group is doing some great work. We’ll look forward to having them back again soon!

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