Nova Scotia·Eskasoni Community Bureau

After a cancer diagnosis, this Eskasoni woman rediscovered her love of basket weaving

Lynn Battiste of Eskasoni, N.S., is celebrating 20 years of being cancer-free. She credits traditional Mi'kmaw basket making for giving her a purpose in life.

Traditional Mi'kmaw art 'made me want to live,' says Lynn Battiste

Lynn Battiste of the Eskasoni First Nation looks at strands of black ash wood that were cut using a gauge to ensure each strip is the same width. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

This story is part of a series from CBC's Eskasoni Community Bureau, based out of the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear, and read on CBC's platforms.

An Eskasoni, N.S., woman says a battle with cancer helped her find her true calling in life.

Lynn Battiste is a fourth-generation basket weaver who learned the art from her mother and great-grandmother.

Although she grew up working with her hands, it wasn't until Battiste was given a cancer diagnosis that she realized the importance of weaving in her life. 

"I was raised with crafts, and what we used to do in those days is we used to go around selling house to house in Sydney Mines and Glace Bay," Battiste said.

"And what they'd offer is a trade. We'd trade for clothes, food [and] money. When we finished our trips … we'd head home. My grandparents had all this money."

Battiste soaks a coil of black ash wood in cold water to make it more pliable for basket making. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Battiste wove her first basket by the time she was six years old with the help of her great-grandmother, the late Nancy Poulette. She and her sister then started helping their mother weave baskets to be sold as containers for apples, potatoes and knitting supplies. 

As she grew older, Battiste's interest in basket weaving started slipping away, but it was renewed after a diagnosis of Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Meet Lynn Battiste, a fourth generation basket weaver in Eskasoni First Nation who's working to keep the art alive in her community.

"I went through eight rounds of [chemotherapy] — it nearly killed me. But I think it was the start of basket making that made me want to live.… It was the baskets that caught my soul," she said. 

"When I began to start making baskets, I realized that I have my ancestors with me while I'm creating. I could feel them. Every basket has its own life because the wood is alive, right? It decides what it wants to be, so that's how I began. And that's how I continue today."

Battiste sorts through some of the sweetgrass collected in Cape Breton that will be braided and woven into some of her baskets. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Battiste, who's been cancer-free for 20 years, has made covered baskets as tiny as a quarter that are made to fit on jewelry such as rings or earrings. She mostly uses black or white ash wood that has been formed into strips. She then smoothes and divides the wood using knives and cutting gauges. 

Some of the tools that Battiste uses are more than 100 years old and were passed onto her by her ancestors. Each of her own three children were given a family-owned knife and taught the art of basket weaving. 

"I'm so proud of the work they've done," said Battiste. "It's like they've exceeded the master.... They're perfectionists."

Battiste signs each basket she's produced, and estimates she's likely made thousands over the past 20 years. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Among the ways Battiste creates her baskets is by weaving in decorative natural fibres like sweetgrass and birch bark. She's made baskets using about 50 patterns, and dressed them up with finer details such as jikajijs, a circular design that looks like seashells. 

"I do one-of-a-kind baskets," Battiste said. "I don't like to duplicate any of my baskets. I never make the same kind twice, so they're pretty unique."

Battiste often sells her baskets at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. She's sold them for as much as $1,800 per basket and has buyers from around the world.

To get the black ash to the exact size she wants, Battiste must run it through a cutting gauge that produces ribbons of wood for weaving. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

And while there are only a handful of people still making baskets in her home community, Battiste is trying to revive the tradition by teaching school-aged children to create simple designs such as Easter baskets. 

"I want to have [many] generations in my basket teachings," she said. "I'm going to try as hard to teach as many as I can.

"The way I was taught it was like a flower blooming — I learned as I went along and my flower got more beautiful."

Two baskets that were hand made by Battiste are shown at her home in Eskasoni, N.S. Battiste says the bigger basket on the left took two weeks to make, while the smaller basket on the right took three weeks to create. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Have a story from or about Eskasoni First Nation to pitch or an issue you'd like to share with us? Email erin.pottie@cbc.ca or Maisyn.sock@cbc.ca. Click here for more information.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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