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Local artisan joins Montana Circle of American Masters

RONAN — Eva Boyd learned to make baskets when she was about 10 from her grandmother, Mary Louise Paul. Mrs. Paul lived in Camas Prairie, and Eva remembers her grandmother sitting out by the water making split cedar root baskets. 

Now Boyd is a grandmother, even a great-grandmother, with 12 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

“If you teach your kids (traditional skills) when they are 10 or 11,” Boyd said, ”they’ll remember.”

When her grandkids were small, she took them to Valley Creek, where they harvested cedar for her. Now her granddaughters in Washington can also make baskets, from gathering the cedar to the finished product.

Boyd’s baskets are well respected. One was on display at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane for two years. The basket was part of a display about Chief Sam Boyd, Boyd’s grandfather. 

Before Boyd rediscovered her basket-making talent, she returned to Salish Kootenai College in 1981 to earn an associate degree in secretarial science in 1983, and then an associate degree in Native American Studies.

When Boyd was working at Two Eagle River School, a friend came to demonstrate making sally bags and split cedar root baskets. 

Skills Boyd had learned from her grandmother came back to her. Boyd told her friend, “I can do that.”

The friend watched Boyd and saw her skillful fingers at work and believed her.

Salish Kootenai College President Joe McDonald and Vice President Jerry Slater encouraged Boyd to make her baskets part of the Native American Studies curriculum at SKC.

Boyd has been an instructor part-time at SKC for 20 years and teaches students how to make sally bags and cornhusk bags. She only teaches the split cedar root baskets at the Agnes Vanderburg camp in the spring of each year. 

Boyd was honored for her baskets when she was selected in 2010 as a member of Montana’s Circle of American Masters in Visual and Folk Arts. 

Her son, Windy Bourdon and her granddaughter, Adria Green, nominated her for the award at the request of Dyani Bingham from the Montana Arts Council staff. 

Bingham first heard of Boyd on a Yellowstone Public Radio program entitled Montana Treasures. Then Bingham spotted Boyd weaving baskets at the National Folk Festival in Butte. 

“We really wanted to honor Boyd as one of the few people carrying on the tradition of basket weaving in her tribe,” Bingham explained.

While Boyd was proud to win the award, she really wants to talk baskets. Although she doesn’t know the origin of the name, Boyd teaches her students to use garden twine for the bottom of their sally bag and a cotton mop head to twine yarn around for the sides of the cylindrical bags. The top is decorated with buckskin in a sawtooth pattern. 

Boyd explained the Salish and Spokane tribes, as well as others, used the bags to gather camas root or bitterroot. Traditionally the bags, shaped like a slim bucket, are worn on a belt, usually to the side, so the wearer’s hands are free to dig bitterroot or camas or pick huckleberries or chokecherries.

Tribal members used to fill a sally bag with bitterroot or camas or dried elk or deer meet to trade with, Boyd added. Huge sally bags were used to carry their belongings. 

The coastal Indians such as the Yakima, the Colvilles and the Spokanes made large cedar baskets exactly like sally bags. 

In fact, Boyd has an old split cedar basket that belonged to her grandmother.

“It likes to get a drink of water,” Boyd said, smiling. 

When working with split cedar, Boyd said you have to keep it wet. For decoration, Boyd used bear grass, some dyed and some natural. 

When she’s not making baskets, she hits garage sales to pick up yarn, either cotton or synthetic, for her students who have a difficult time affording materials. 

The matriarch of the Boyds on the Spokane Reservation and the Red Horn family on the Flathead Reservation, Boyd said she doesn’t feel old.

Her schedule would make many a younger person shiver.

Not only does she attend Northwest Basket Association gatherings, but Boyd traveled to Alaska to teach a two-week class on making sally bags to Athabascan Indians. Using low-growing bushes native to Alaska, Boyd also taught the teenagers how to make split cedar roots baskets.

Boyd chuckled as she remembered students who shed tears before they finished their sally bags and others who were left-handed and had to learn how to twist and weave right-handed.

“I love teaching,” she said. 

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