By Beverlee Pettit and Sallie Cotter Andrews
Among the Wyandotte and Seneca-Cayuga records, there is no shortage of women named Susan Bearskin. We do not know which one created this beautiful basket. We are grateful, however, that this basket allows us to meet several women with the same name and to understand more of the characteristics and personalities of our people.
Friends Missionary Jeremiah Hubbard was known far and wide as “Uncle Jerry the marrying Quaker preacher.” Performing Christian marriage ceremonies with the exchanging of vows was vital to his 40-year ministry to the Indian people whom he loved. He kept records of the ceremonies he performed in his book of marriages. On May 4, 1886, he noted that he married Billy Bearskin and Susan Brown, both Wyandottes. He recorded that he used an interpreter for the ceremony and that Billy and Susan had lived together for many years and had two grown sons.
Jeremiah Hubbard was also a school teacher. Regarding another Susan Bearskin, he recorded that “The most difficult part of my work was to teach them the English language; it was a hard matter to teach them even a letter….I have asked them questions over and over, and had them stand and stare me in the face and never crack a smile. There was one young woman by the name of Susan Bearskin who was conspicuous for this. I could never persuade her to answer my questions.”
There are two Susan Bearskins listed on the 1898 Seneca Census which was taken by the Quapaw Agency in June of that year. They are Susan Bearskin, age 42, the wife of George Bearskin; and their daughter, Susan, age 18. Mrs. George Bearskin is most likely the maker of this basket.
Another Susie Bearskin, the grandmother of Beverlee Pettit, was born in 1904. She had a similar basket which she used especially for gathering wild onions and mushrooms. However, this Susie Bearskin would have been too young at the time Dr. Charles Marius Barbeau came to visit in 1911 and 1912 to have made the basket herself. As well, another Susan Bearskin who now lies at rest in the Wyandotte Cemetery was born in 1867 and died in 1876. She was also much too young, and it is not likely that someone would sell a basket made by a 9-year-old girl who had died.
“This basket is referred to as a ‘Feed Basket’. Used as a gathering basket, a woman would carry it on her arm as she walked through the forest and may have collected wild onions, berries or nuts. Looking at the weave, we can visualize her sitting near the stream where she would have soaked the wood to make it bend easily. She had strong fingers and was able to quickly weave in and out, in and out until the beautiful basket was finished. We can hear her voice as she sings softly and says a prayer that she may be able to find lots berries and a few wild onions for the deer meat. Every woman should have a feed basket,” says Beverlee Pettit, citizen of the Wyandotte Nation.