Presenters share culture, artistry at Emma Big Bear event

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At the Emma Big Bear Birthday celebration July 5, Melanie Sainz showed off her Ho-Chunk regalia, including moccasins, leggings, a skirt, blouse, necklaces and hair wrap created by herself and female relatives over the years. By donning the pieces, she said it allows her to reminisce about the memories connected to each one. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Terry Landsgaard shows off some of the unique Emma Big Bear baskets in his collection.“Hers are so characteristic,” he said, telling attendees of the distinguishing factors between Emma’s and other Ho-Chunk baskets. “That’s what I find different about her from others. It’s the character, variety and patina.”

Spencer Lone Tree, of Postville, another Emma Big Bear relative, rounded out the presentation, singing some of his music, including one song he played for Emma as a young man. He also spoke about his books, which tell of a fictional Ho-Chunk boy named Night Sun. Through his writing, Lone Tree shares Ho-Chunk history imparted from his parents and grandparents.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

In an event sponsored by the Emma Big Bear Foundation, Emma Big Bear’s 146th birthday was celebrated in Marquette July 5, with several informative presentations by speakers Melanie Sainz, Terry Landsgaard and Spencer Lone Tree. 

Kicking off the event was Sainz, who is a relative of Emma Big Bear, a Ho-Chunk woman who was well-known for selling her baskets and beaded jewelry in Marquette, McGregor and other communities throughout Northeast Iowa, and living in the traditions of her ancestors. An artist and teacher, Sainz credited her grandmother and Emma for instilling a love of art and entrepreneurship in herself. She created the Little Eagle Arts Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting American Indian art by cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit of American Indian artists.

Sainz said Emma’s well-known baskets are particularly special because of the amount of work put into procuring the materials for and creating one­—roughly 100 hours. Made of black ash, the material is hard to come by, she noted.

“You have to drag the log out and remove the bark. You use a blunt axe to remove each annual growth ring,” she explained. “It takes so much time and energy.”

Sainz said the basket handles are especially artful.

“It’s important to teach about these art forms because they could be lost,” she noted. “You want to leave a legacy for the next generation.”

As part of her presentation, Sainz showed off her Ho-Chunk regalia, including moccasins, leggings, a skirt, blouse, necklaces and hair wrap created by herself and female relatives over the years. By donning the pieces, she said it allows her to reminisce about the memories connected to each one.

The skirt was especially dear because it was created by her grandmother.

“You can see her approach to color and design,” Sainz explained, showing the skirt to the audience. “The patterns are so woodland, beautiful and inspiring. There is no Ho-Chunk word for art, but there is a word for beauty.”

Sainz encouraged others in the room to cherish their family heirlooms and other items passed down from generation to generation, remembering the history associated with them

“Take them out, touch them, talk to them,” she said. “Life goes by so fast.”

Terry Landsgaard, a local Emma Big Bear basket collector, who also visited Emma as a child, followed up Sainz’s presentation, speaking about Emma’s baskets and how to distinguish her work from other Ho-Chunk baskets.

“She was a talented artist and prolific basket maker. Every time I saw her, she was weaving,” he said, recalling a time he and his father tried to find Emma during a flood. “There she was, sitting on a porch, weaving a basket in the middle of the flood.”

Landsgaard said several characteristics distinguish Emma’s baskets, including their perfect balance and quality. Although the colors now look faded, Landsgaard said they were once vibrant; the natural dyes have simply dimmed over the years, with Emma passing in 1968.

One of the biggest Emma characteristics, said Landsgaard, is that her baskets are wrapped to the left, with a slant to the left, as Emma appeared to be left-handed.

“There’s also a herringbone pattern on the bottom [of the baskets],” he added. “That’s a pattern you don’t see in others.”

Emma’s handles were often distinct, as well, he said, because they reached all the way down to the bottom of the basket. They were also typically notched.

Landsgaard said Emma created different-sized and shaped baskets, from the regular market basket to smaller, rounder baskets. Some also had swing handles. His collection even holds a small, woven child’s rocking chair created by Emma.

Several people from surrounding communities brought baskets to the event, asking Landsgaard to identify if they were true Emma baskets or not. He identified a handful, noting that he gets a feeling when he’s found one. 

“Hers are so characteristic,” he said. “That’s what I find different about her from others. It’s the character, variety and patina.”

Spencer Lone Tree, of Postville, another Emma Big Bear relative, rounded out the presentation, singing some of his music, including one song he played for Emma as a young man. He also spoke about his books, which tell of a fictional Ho-Chunk boy named Night Sun. Through his writing, Lone Tree shares Ho-Chunk history imparted from his parents and grandparents.

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