Last weekend I had the chance to revisit Madeline Island in Lake Superior – my latest island love. This time I brought my family along and was able to spend more than an hour on the island – more like five hours – but it still wasn’t enough!
The most noteworthy experience was a visit to the museum in La Pointe, the town on the island. The museum is a compendium of historic and modern buildings. Although the dusty artifacts were interesting, the coolest thing was an actual live human being named Dennis White. He was demonstrating finger weaving, a Native American craft.
Finger weaving is new to me. Dennis explained it’s like weaving without a loom. He described two methods to us, one that uses a single stick as a frame for the weaving and another that uses the doubly complicated equipment of two sticks. For the two-stick method, Dennis had some custom-made wooden frames, but explained that a person could just as easily poke two sticks into the ground for the same effect. I loved that the technique was so primitive and portable.
He weaves sashes for ceremonial purposes, bags, and small pouches that people are now commandeering to carry their cell phones. To allay the boredom that can come from working on a single design, Dennis usually works on multiple weaving projects at a time (eight or more). It takes him about 10 hours to weave a sash. The longest amount of time he spent on a project was 100 hours.
Dennis is an Ojibway from Hayward in northern Wisconsin. He’s so accomplished at his craft that he was invited to do an artist’s residency at the Smithsonian Institute. One of his weavings is featured in the Tweed Museum of Art in Duluth. Dennis also has a master’s degree in mathematics and is a retired math teacher.
We got into a philosophical conversation about the links between math and art, and how people with a talent for one of these things often possess a talent for the other. I wish I could better remember his words. In any event, they were deep and true. Just from our short exchange I could tell he was kind, wise, patient, and proud of his heritage. His sense of humor was delightful, too.
An elementary school art teacher happened to be standing next to me during our conversation and told me she hopes to invite Dennis to her class someday. I get warm fuzzies knowing that this chance encounter could lead to young minds being instructed and inspired in an ancient craft.
For more information about Dennis, read this story from “On Wisconsin” magazine.