Dennis White: Saving an Ancient Art
For Dennis White MA’83, practicing the traditional Ojibwe craft of finger weaving — braiding strands of yarn into intricate patterns — is both an art form and a cultural imperative. Last December, he completed an artist’s residency at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., where he studied materials relating to this vanishing skill.
The craft has been practiced in the Americas for three thousand years, and White notes that the Ojibwe have been doing it for at least three centuries. He says that his Smithsonian experience made him realize that “we really need people to learn it” — he’s one of a very few practitioners among the 150,000 Ojibwe who still populate the Great Lakes region.
White started finger weaving when he picked up a book on the craft in his twenties. Tribal elders gave him pointers, and he says he “learned the hard way” that starting with a number of strands that are a power of four, and preferably a power of sixteen, opens up many more design possibilities.
These days, White often rises early to manipulate dozens of strands of colorful yarn into sashes and belts, favoring designs that blend original ideas with patterns he’s seen in fabrics made by his people well over one hundred years ago. It may be no coincidence that the name White’s uncle gave him as a child, Mezinaanakwad, means “clouds spread out all over the sky in a certain pattern and color.”
White’s passion for finger weaving dovetails with his lifelong fascination with mathematics, the subject of his UW master’s degree. As he examined artifacts from the 1850s and 1860s at the Smithsonian, one of the things he focused on was the number of threads in each traditional pattern. “These people didn’t get to study mathematics at Van Vleck Hall in Madison,” he says, “but they did some neat things, and it’s amazing that they had a sense for the numbers that were always there.”
As the K-12 administrator of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School in Hayward, Wisconsin, which he helped to found as a teacher in 1976, White has made finger weaving part of the fourth-grade curriculum. He’s also what the Ojibwe call a midewiwin, which means he’s qualified to preside over rites such as weddings, funerals, and naming ceremonies.
White’s commitment to preserving Ojibwe culture extends beyond finger weaving to language preservation. He teaches it at the community college on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, has helped to establish an Ojibwe immersion program at the school where he works, and often speaks Ojibwe at home.
Published in the Fall 2010 issue