When her kids were young, Sandy Smith had a lot of time on her hands as a stay-at-home mom. That was until she found a book about cedar weaving, and her hands haven’t been still since.
“I figured I could learn how to do it because I can crochet from reading. I could always take what I read and transfer it to my hands,” Smith said, 27 years after completing her first project.
People often mistook her first woven basket as being an antique — she’d soaked it for too long, accidentally giving it an aged look as if it had been sitting in the sun for years. Another First Nations artist at the All Native Basketball Tournament, however, liked that about Smith’s basket and offered a trade.
“I didn’t know how to pull cedar then. They took the basket and they gave me a coil of cedar so I could continue,” Smith said. “I was sad to see it go, but I’m glad I let it go because without that strip of cedar, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Cedar pulling, Smith said, is difficult when you don’t know the proper technique. When Marie Oldsfield took her out, her guidance made all the difference. Smith would later begin passing on the knowledge she’d gained, adopting Oldsfield’s tactic of making beginners take out their mistakes.
“Take it apart, do it again. Take it apart until we didn’t make the mistake. If we leave the mistake, we’ll continue to do the mistake,” Smith said. “I think the hardest part is taking it apart, because you spent so much time putting it together.”
She first started weaving from the information she found in books and was able to teach herself drum-making and what plants to collect for medicinal purposes, but it was other artists who became the best sources to learn from. Smith’s breadth of artwork now includes cedar weaving, making moccasins, drums and dreamcatchers.
Smith first came to the North Coast at 13 years old to work at a cannery in Port Edward. Every summer, she’d come from Gitsegukla outside of Hazelton to work at the cannery for the season. At 19 years old, she made the move permanent. She met the man who would be the father of her two kids, and her husband for 25 years. Through learning and passing along the techniques she uses to create her art, Smith has also gained, as she likes to say, more family.
Sadie, a 74-year-old elder, is Smith’s best friend and like a second mother. The two of them will spend hours together learning from each other. Smith also helps Sadie and other Kaien Island Elders serve food, dry and smoke fish for Seafests and drive them around if need be. Unofficially, Smith spends approximately 15 hours a week helping elders when they need it.
Every now and then, Smith will gift Sadie something she’s made to show her that she appreciates the time they spend together and the knowledge that flows between them. A small gift, such as a woven rattle, can take 16 hours to make.
“I feel like they’re full of knowledge. Sadie’s husband Stan talks about how the eulachon net came to be. Helping an elder out who you know, try to advocate for them and be their friend,” Smith said. “I want to see them doing well. We’re not family but we come together as a family and we support each other every way we can.”
For between 12 and 16 hours a month, people will drop in at Smith’s house or she’ll visit theirs to weave, have a coffee and chat. She’s had artists come from the U.S. to visit her and learn from each other.
“I think that’s why you have to branch out, why you have to be part of the community, meet different people. You’re not going to learn anything if you stay in your own little bubble,” Smith said.
“I didn’t know a lot of my friends would be seniors and elders and even as young as Lucy Woodman. Just sharing the knowledge back and forth and learning from them and them learning from me. It’s a two-way street — we learn from each other.”
As Smith has experienced in the past 27 years, it can be a long process to learn the traditions that now take up much of her daily life. Finding the right people to learn from and with, then learning the technique takes dedication. Every year she chooses younger people from the community to mentor, hoping they too will pass on the knowledge.
“I like the fact that they take it home and they work on it so that the culture doesn’t just stay with me or where we’re working.
“I like to share what I know because there are not too many people out there who know it anymore. The more people I can share it with, the longer it’ll stay alive.”