“I knocked forty-six years off that tree,” April Stone ’95 says, pointing back to her house. She’s referring to the pale, bark-less core of a black ash log atop a sawhorse. April lives at the southeastern corner of the Bad River Reservation, her house tucked in beneath an umbrella of healthy hardwoods.
April separates black ash logs, one growth ring at a time. The growth rings then get split into splints that she uses to make baskets. She “knocks off” the years with a pounder that looks like a mallet. Depending on the strength of the person and the thickness of the ring, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to about an hour to pound a growth ring loose.
April stands in her studio surrounded by rolled spruce roots, willow rims, cedar, elm, a pile of black ash splints, and partially made baskets. She reports her house has a similar vibe. She even has a black ash tattoo. “Making black ash baskets is my life and my passion.”
April studied botany at Northland College in the 1990s with Professor Jim Meeker, now deceased. She was part of a two-year program to earn a natural resources technician certificate.
She discovered basketry in 1998 when her then-husband built a basket at the North House Folk School in northern Minnesota. The basket still sits in her studio. She watched his utilitarian basket change and shift and come to life—and when it needed to be repaired, she decided to learn more.
She checked out museum collections, books, and images because, at the time, she could not find a practicing basket maker in her community. She chose black ash as a material because it’s accessible, traditional, and weaves nicely. She finished her first basket in 1999.
At a traditional spiritual gathering in 2001, she was told that if she followed what’s in her heart, she would be taken care of. “My literal translation was as long as you keep making baskets, you will be taken care of,” she said.
In 2000, an invasive species called the Emerald Ash Borer made its way across the Atlantic in shipping pallets—and began devastating black ash trees. Emerald Ash Borer has been detected nearby—in the county next door—and April suspects it may be in Ashland County, too.
Stone cannot stop the Emerald Ash Borer, but she can respond in the best way she knows—through her craft. In 2016, Stone started a community project building a basket shaped like a coffin. For several weeks, she worked in a public space on Main Street in Ashland, Wisconsin, weaving with the help of community members who stopped in.
The coffin, which now permanently resides at the Minnesota History Center, represents the potential destruction of her beloved black ash trees as well as the tree’s cultural significance for Indigenous peoples.
For years, she searched for a historical tie between black ash basketry and her community, with no luck. But then one day she looked closely at a black and white photograph she had looked at all her life—one of her great-grandma and her grandma. There, behind them, was a black ash work basket. When Stone finally noticed, “I was like, ‘Hey look! There’s a basket!’”
Basketry is more than a way to make a living for April. It is a spiritual calling, a historical exploration into her roots as an Ojibwe woman, and a way to connect the next generation to the tactile world.
She earns a living making baskets and has become an expert and an ambassador for her craft and for the black ash tree. She teaches around the country, and people from all over come to her to listen and learn.
Teaching is where she says hope for humanity lies—helping someone heal, sparking something in someone, creating memories for children.
“Basketry goes so much deeper than I first realized—traditional teachings keep showing themselves: patience, humility, respect, wisdom, courage, love,” she said. “If people could make a basket, but also learn about themselves and each other, we could be better humans, nicer humans, kinder humans”
You can follow April on Instagram @april.l.stone.