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Donna Frank makes sure tribe’s sweetgrass culture won’t fade away

During a harvesting outing in Immokalee, Donna Frank, center, shows Lauren Posada how tie a bundle of sweetgrass with a strip of fabric. At left, Lorraine Posada gathers her bundle of sweetgrass. (Beverly Bidney photo)

Donna Frank is on a mission to save a part of Seminole culture that is dear to her; gathering sweetgrass and making baskets.

At 64, Frank has the stamina to find and pick sweetgrass among fields of saw palmetto and scrub in the heat of the Florida summer sun. Dressed in a large straw hat and patchwork skirt with protective leggings underneath, Frank seeks out and quickly assembles bundles of the sweetgrass.

“I don’t want this knowledge to be buried with me,” she said. “I’m the only one gathering sweetgrass right now and I want to make sure others learn how to do it.”

Sweetgrass is the fiber that creates iconic Seminole baskets and Frank hopes to revitalize the art form.
Frank recently led picking expeditions in Immokalee and in an area north of Okeechobee. She also taught basket-making classes in Immokalee and Tampa with plans to do more during the rainy season this summer.

Donna Frank holds freshly picked sweetgrass in an Immokalee field May 25, 2023. (Beverly Bidney photo)

Due to development and trespass issues, Frank said sweetgrass is getting harder to find and the tribe is losing locations where they used to pick.

On May 25, she brought a group to some shrub land adjacent to the Immokalee Reservation and taught the participants how to find and pick the sweetgrass.

“You brush it with your hand, like hair, and then pull,” she said. “The brown part will stay in the ground and the green part comes out easily.”

New generation learns

Lauren Posada, 21, hadn’t picked sweetgrass for about six years. The last time she picked she went with her grandmother Linda Beletso, mother Lorraine Posada and sister Lindsey into the woods on the Immokalee Reservation. Her grandmother and mother are both basket makers.

“I was excited to come out here today,” Posada said. “I don’t know how to make baskets yet, but I have to start learning now so when I am older I can teach it to younger kids. If I’m going to make baskets, I want to know where the sweetgrass came from and how to pick it.”

During the dry winter months, good sweetgrass is difficult to get; it is harder and more brittle. Rainy weather makes for lush and pliable sweetgrass. But a picking trip isn’t just for picking; there is also a sense of history and camaraderie among the participants in the fields.

Reina Micco, of the Brighton Reservation, brought her children Giselle and Kobe to the expedition north of Okeechobee on June 13. Although Micco has made baskets, it was the first time any of them picked sweetgrass.

Donna Frank holds up a fiber base of what will become a basket as she shows participants in a basket-making class May 30 in Immokalee how to attach sweetgrass to get a basket started. Watching, from left to right, are Marissa Sanchez, Amy Yzaguirre, Cecilia Pequeno, Amy Garza and Demi Garza. (Beverly Bidney photo)

“I never picked before today, so my kids are doing it earlier than I did,” Micco said. “When they see a basket, now they know where it starts and all the work that’s put into making it.”

The site was daunting; it was overgrown with shrubs and weeds as well as plenty of saw palmetto. Sweetgrass thrives under the saw palmetto, so a site with a lot of the short palmetto plants should have an abundance of sweetgrass.

“This sandy terrain with the saw palmetto is perfect for sweetgrass,” Frank said. “We call it sugar sand. The sweetgrass lays down at night with the weight of the dew. In the morning it rises up with the sun.”

The pickers high-stepped over the shrubs and made their way deep into the heart of the site, which is located off of narrow dirt roads in the middle of undeveloped land.

Donna Frank demonstrates how to attach a bundle of sweetgrass to a palm fiber base during a class in Immokalee. (Beverly Bidney photo)

“I came here because baskets are a big part of our culture and I wanted to know how to pick the sweetgrass,” said Giselle Micco, 17. “If you have the passion and want to make baskets, it isn’t a problem to come out here and pick your own sweetgrass.

“It makes me feel a connection to our ancestors.”

“I wanted to learn how to pick because my ancestors knew when and how to pick the sweetgrass,” said Kobe Micco, 15. “They knew what they were looking for but I can’t imagine it was as easy for them as it is for us. We were told where the location is, so it was easy for us to come and get some.”

Tampa Culture coordinator Herbert Jim organized the Okeechobee trip for Tampa residents. After the basket class Frank taught, young adults in the class wanted to learn how to gather the grass. Tampa residents Anthony Joe, Joshua Smith and McKenna Smith met the group at the site.

After the picking trips, Frank likes to demonstrate how to wash and dry the grass. In Immokalee there was a water spigot and hose, but in Okeechobee there wasn’t.

Baskets on display in Immokalee along with tied up bundles of sweetgrass in the background. (Beverly Bidney photo)

After the Immokalee group had their bundles of sweetgrass, Frank showed them how to wash the dirt off the grass with dish detergent and a bleach in a large tub. Then it is laid out to dry in the sun.

Once the sweetgrass is dry, it is ready to use. During a basket-making class in Immokalee on May 30, Frank showed eight students how to gather a small bundle together – about the width of a pinkie finger – and attach it to the palmetto fiber base with embroidery or crochet thread.

First, the thread is strengthened and preserved by pulling it over a chunk of beeswax. Then the thread is used to sew the bundle to the fiber base. Felt can also be used as a base, but Frank chooses to use fiber.

“I don’t want to use processed materials to do something my mother taught me,” she said, “but you are the artist, you can do what you want.”

Frank taught the class how to make the two-step stitch to attach the bundle first to the base, then once the bundle has made a complete revolution around the base, to other bundles and eventually a completed basket.

Most of the participants had no experience making baskets, but Rhonda Nunez made one when she was about 11 or 12 years old. She said it was difficult to pick it up again.

“It’s been a long time since I even attempted to make one of these,” she said. “Donna used to be our culture teacher back in the day.”

“I think it’s really cool,” said Ava Nunez, Rhonda’s daughter. “I just want to learn about our culture and how we used to do things.”

Donna Frank leads the Micco family, Giselle, Kobe and Reina, into a field filled with an abundance of saw palmetto and sweetgrass north of Okeechobee. (Beverly Bidney photo)

Sally Osceola, who came to the class from Trail, made a couple of baskets years ago.

“It’s coming back to me,” she said. “Getting it started is the hardest part and then manipulating it into the shape you want is also hard.”

Amy Yzaguirre is an accomplished seamstress and makes patchwork. She learned how to make baskets as a child, but has always preferred sewing.

“I didn’t think I had the patience for it as a child,” Yzaguirre said. “I’m more patient now, but my hands hurt. It’s a beautiful art and I love it. I’m trying to better my understanding of it, I’m already in awe of it.”

Frank said she is always proud of the people who come out to pick sweetgrass and sweat alongside her.

“I hope they take away some pride and a little bit of the past that’s been lost,” Frank said. “By doing activities like this, we are teaching and preserving our culture.”

Donna Frank in a field picking sweetgrass. (Beverly Bidney photo)
America Martinez picks sweetgrass in a welcome bit of shade in an Immokalee field. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Herbert Jim, Tampa culture and language coordinator, left, and Kobe Micco find plenty of sweetgrass in a field north of Okeechobee. (Beverly Bidney photo)

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