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Picking sweetgrass brings back sweet memories

Big Cypress community Culture Center manager Geraldine Osceola shows Destiny Jimmie how to find the brown strands of sweetgrass. (Beverly Bidney photo)

IMMOKALEE — Sweetgrass is the fiber that binds the Tribe together, at least when it comes to baskets.

For generations, the process of finding the grass and preparing it for basket making has been passed down through families. To continue the tradition usually assigned to grandmothers, the Hollywood community Culture Department organized a tribalwide expedition March 8 into the wilds of Immokalee in search of the elusive grass.

“We came together and brought young ones out to show them how to find it,” said Bobby Frank, Hollywood community Culture Center manager. “Some missed school for this, but it’s important; this is our teaching.”

Frank said picking sweetgrass isn’t a job for one person; everything must be done together.

About 20 women, of various ages and reservations, trekked into a small area of forest with plenty of the palmetto. The slender grass is about as wide as a piece of thin spaghetti and found in the undergrowth of saw palmetto. Gathering it is difficult. First, it must be found, and then it has to be pulled up very carefully one strand at a time to avoid being scratched by the sharp edges of the palm fronds.

“I picked it when I was a little girl,” said Tammy Billie, of Immokalee. “I went out with my grandma, but I wasn’t paying attention.”

Susan Davis also remembered picking sweetgrass with her grandmother, mother and aunts as a child.

“While we were out there today, I felt like I could see my family,” Davis said. “It brought back a lot of memories.”

Most of the women on the outing, who came from Big Cypress, Brighton, Hollywood and Immokalee, either hadn’t picked since childhood or it was their first experience.

“It takes patience to find it and it isn’t easy,” said Allegra Billie, 16. “You need a good eye for it.”

When each person had collected sufficiently sized bundles, they returned to the Immokalee culture camp where they sorted through the bundles and picked out the brown strands. The search was fruitful, but would have been more so had it been rainy season.

“The grass is stronger and stands straight up in the rainy season, making it much easier to find,” Frank said. “In the dry season it lays down, so you have to pick it up and see if it’s good enough.”

Skyla Osceola had good luck finding the grass in the shade under the palmettos, where the ground is still moist.

Once the bundles were picked clean of brown grass, Donna Frank showed the group how to wash it with soap and water in large galvanized steel basins. When the grass was clean, it was laid out to dry on tables.

Frank brought a few bundles she collected over the years to show how the color changes with time from green to tan to light khaki color. Baskets are made by tying the coils of sweetgrass together with beeswax coated embroidery thread.

Seminole basket making began in the 1930s when they were made as trinkets for the tourist trade. In time, it became a real art form and Donna Frank is happy to share her knowledge.

“It was an art form that was dying off,” she said. “Now it’s starting to come back because of the Culture programs.”

Tammy Billie doesn’t consider herself a gifted basket maker, but wants the tradition to endure nonetheless.

“Not everyone is made to be a basket maker, but it doesn’t hurt to try it and teach it to your children,” said Billie, whose talents are in beading and sewing. “Maybe they will be the ones to be meant for it.”

The younger generation appears to be open to learning.

“Finding sweetgrass isn’t easy and it hurts your hands,” said Destiny Jimmie, 19. “But I’m going to learn how to make the baskets now so we can teach our children later.”

Susan Davis, Allegra Billie and Destiny Jimmie sort through sweetgrass they collected in Immokalee March 8. The women were looking for and discarding any brown strands of grass. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Skyla Osceola removes a brown strand and takes it out of the bunch of green sweetgrass she picked in Immokalee. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Donna Frank gets some help from Ida Osceola as she washes a large bundle of Immokalee sweetgrass. (Beverly Bidney photo)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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