Over a recent Zoom call, Christopher Lewis - Zuni fiber artist, Board Member for the Greater Bears Ears Partnership (formerly Friends of Cedar Mesa) Board Member, and Native Scholar on the Cedar Mesa Perishables Project - shared some insight about the approach he takes to his harvesting practice.
With the Cedar Mesa Perishables Project (CMPP), Chris works alongside other scholars to document the 4,000 mostly unpublished textiles, baskets, wooden implements, and hide and feather artifacts excavated from dry caves in the Greater Cedar Mesa area during the 1890s. Alongside his work with the CMPP Chris is a fiber artist, oftentimes using materials he harvests from the land in his basket making. His work has incorporated reviving ancestral weaving patterns, basketry and other textile arts in Zuni and other Pueblos.
Describing his approach for harvesting the yucca, sumac and willow he uses for weaving and colorful minerals he incorporates as pigments, Chris expressed the importance of preventing long-term damage, ensuring that he, and those in the generations to come, may continue to harvest those same areas.
“I picked, but I didn’t pick just one area,” he explained, while regaling a recent outing to collect wood and plants. “I walked around and picked a little here and a little there, so I didn’t deplete an entire area. If you pick out an entire area, the next year you’ll go back, and there won’t be any more plants. Leave something for the following years, for future generations.”
Chris elaborated on the intentional techniques used in harvesting - never pulling plants by their root, or just cutting the leaves so they can resprout - all to avoid depleting an area of its plant population and preserving the health of the ecosystem.
“All of that is taught to us. We learn that way not to deplete or abuse what we’re given - and that there’s always something for us when we go back.”
Yet, this is not the way that public lands in the United States have been managed in our lifetimes.
Chris recounted the devastating impacts of mining he has seen up north in the La Sals, an area he frequents to collect certain plant material and mineral: “I look at that and think of how much is lost…When we start doing large scale operations like that, the things done will have long term effects over time. The scars will remain. What’s being dug out of the ground and leaching into the water table, the dust, what’s being carried in the air - all of that has long lasting effects.”