Nfld. & Labrador

Nestled by a Newfoundland bay, this man is fighting to keep an Indigenous tradition alive

Far from the First Nation where he grew up, Burlington Tooshkenig works with sweetgrass to make baskets — and to continue a tradition he fears is at risk of fading away.

Far away from his childhood home, Burlington Tooshkenig honours his heritage in N.L.

Burlington Tooshkenig now grows his own sweetgrass at his home in Carbonear, N.L. (Andrew Waterman/CBC)

As a child looking for places to hide in his grandmother's small two-bedroom house, Burlington Tooshkenig found himself underneath her bed.

"I remember finding lots of sweetgrass all wrapped up in blankets," Tooshkenig said. "That's where she kept it. That's why her room smelled like sweetgrass all the time."

His grandmother was almost 100 years old, he said. But despite the almost 96-year age difference, she was his favourite person.

"I remember her talking to me … about the process of (basket making) and she would tell stories and legends."

Tooshkenig naturally gravitated toward basket making.

If this were to die out in my lifetime, I would be so saddened.- Burlington Tooshkenig

Now, close to Newfoundland's Conception Bay and far away from the Ontario First Nation where he grew up, he continues a tradition he fears might disappear.

"In my community of 5,000 people, there were only about five sweetgrass basket makers left that I'm aware of," he said. "If this were to die out in my lifetime, I would be so saddened. It would be such a terrible tragedy for me for something like this to die."

Apart from selling his art online, he teaches others. 

His wife, Cathy Tooshkenig, said his head is filled with his art. "He doesn't use a pattern.… It's perfect, but he doesn't do it ahead of time — it's all in his head," she said. But it's not without its downside.

"(That's) why he doesn't know my schedule — he doesn't know dates and times," she said.

Roots are in Ontario

Tooshkenig grew up on the Walpole Island First Nation, a member of the Potawatomi. The community is just south of Sarnia and right on the border between Canada and America.

Now he finds himself in a modern subdivision in the town of Carbonear, where he and Cathy are raising their children, Judah and Sophie. Cathy's roots are in Newfoundland. She spent the first decade of her life in Miles Cove, a small community near Springdale, before her family packed up and settled in Manitoba.

Tooshkenig works on his projects while also caring for his two young children. (Andrew Waterman/CBC)

That's where the couple met. After she accepted a nursing position, the couple moved to Carbonear.

As a stay-at-home father, Burlington tries to keep a routine. After breakfast and an hour of reading, they make their way to the playroom, which doubles as his art studio. "I'll set up some toys … then they'll allow me to sit down for a little while."

It's a scene similar to the one he remembers but without the noisy old oil stove that would make a "tick tick tick" noise when it would turn on.

No longer close to a supply, he has to have his sweetgrass and porcupine quills — which he dyes and uses for the design — shipped in. He's currently in the process of growing his own.

The sights and sounds of foraging for it, though, are still clear in his head.

"You could hear the clothes rustling up against the weeds as you're going along."

Mimicking birdsong

He pauses a moment and turns his lips in a whistling position, mimicking the sound of birdsong, while still weaving thread through the grass.

"Birds. I love that," he said of the sound. 

Because traditional sweetgrass basket making is now so rare, he said it's not strange to get half a million page views when he posts a picture of his art. After a tea of cedar and honey, he shows me a business plan.

The couple have their sights trained on a building in Holyrood, about 60 kilometres away, where they hope to open a café. There, they would serve Indigenous-inspired food and drinks, as well as more classic café fare.

Burlington and Cathy Tooshkenig relax with their children, Judah and Sophie. (Andrew Waterman/CBC )

But the building would also serve as a cultural centre and gallery of Indigenous art. The couple is currently raising funds to purchase the building.

"We've been working for a year and a half to make this dream come true. It's going to happen, no matter how long it takes," Burlington said.

Cathy is excited at the prospect of substituting her nurse's uniform for an apron. She'll be the one doing much of the baking and cooking at the café if everything falls into the right place.

She's also excited at the prospect of being able to showcase her husband's art while helping other Indigenous artists get recognition as well.

"A lot of those arts are lost and not being passed down to the next generation," she said.

Four-year-old Judah says he is more concentrated on his painting at the moment. As his father places one of his baskets in his lap, Judah spares no time in describing what it's made from.

"Wow," he said. "This is made out of sweetgrass and thread right here."

Tooshkenig holds some sweetgrass and looks at some of the products and art he has made. (Andrew Waterman/CBC)

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Andrew Waterman


Andrew Waterman is a freelance journalist living in St. John’s.