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
Linda Hesselgrave September 19, 2010
How wonderful! I graduated with Dennis from Central High School in Superior. Dennis is a wonderful gentle person and I am so glad to know of the great things he does with the heritage of the Ojibwe. Far too much history of our ancient peoples has been lost.
Jan Schwieters September 20, 2010
I too graduated with Dennis from Central High in Superior. He was then, and I guess still is, a math wiz. And, as I recall, a marbles champion. Quiet, soft spoken and talented, he was possessed of great intellect. To cherish his heritage, is an extension of the depth of his character and ability to bring something wonderful to those around him.
Linda Buckley Dee December 6, 2012
Like Linda and Jan, I also graduated with Dennis. How wonderful to read that Dennis was chosen to study at the Smithsonian. While geneology is a current interest for many, this article shows that Dennis has long been interested in his forefathers’ language and art. The youth of the Ojibwe Nation are so fortunate to have him as a mentor, teacher and role model.
Fred Johnson January 10, 2013
I was a new freshman at Superior Central High School when Dennis White was a senior. I still remember vividly how he stood up for me and my lockermate when another senior was going to harrass us. A word from Dennis and we were saved.
I later learned that Dennis was the Senior Class President, but I will always remember him for the example he set that day and for his compassion. With a few words he freed me from the grips of racial prejustice that day.
Thank you Dennis for your kindness to me and for all the mentoring and teaching you have done over the years. You are truely a blessing to all you have touched.