WEAVING PAST WITH PRESENT
BY JEREMY WALTNER
For Viki Graber, a community native who graduated from Freeman Academy in 1982 and from Freeman Junior College two years later, willow weaving is personal.
How can it not be?
It’s a skill she learned from her father, LeRoy, starting at age 12 and one that was introduced here by her great-grandfather, Jacob “Post” Graber, not long after he arrived in America as part of the Germans-from-Russia migration.
“It’s part of my own history,” says Graber, who lives in Goshen, Ind., and regularly demonstrates the skill at Schmeckfest. “Weaving a basket is when I feel closest to my great-grandfather and one of the few things we have in common.”
So much does Graber appreciate her ancestry and the heritage that goes along with it that she was back in her home community last week teaching others the skill she has spent her entire life mastering.
Through a partnership with Heritage Hall Museum & Archives, Graber met with about 40 adults and youth alike over the course of nine sessions in four days Sept. 28 to Oct. 1. Willows were used to create decorative stars, trivets, vindspiralers and baskets. Graber provided her time and materials at no charge as part of a fundraising effort by the Freeman museum.
And both teacher and student benefitted; the students were allowed to take home their creation while the teacher knew she had given something of herself — and of her family — to others.
And what is that something?
A creation, of course, but also an understanding of a process they may not have otherwise had.
“I believe it’s really important to know more about what our ancestors had to do to survive,” Graber told The Courier. “I want people to realize that creating a basket is no small task, and through that experience, appreciate that we can acquire instant containers instead of having to spend hours creating something that we need to survive.
“Weaving and other types of traditional art almost forces us to slow down and really raises our awareness. When you weave, you have to take a deep breath and just be in the present, so it can be a very cathartic exercise.”
The willow weaving classes last week also provided an opportunity to return to a hometown she loves.
“I will always be a Freemanite no matter where I am,” Graber said. “So much of who I am is because of the Freeman community, and even though there are continual changes, many of the good parts of Freeman remain the same. The unity, kindness, small town feeling of support for each other is what I love, and it always seems to be here whenever I come back.
“It’s the timeless things that matter.”
As for her partnership with the local museum — well, she loves that, too.
“Heritage Hall Museum & Archives is such a valuable resource for so many people,” she says. “I’m very passionate about helping the museum, and these classes were not only a fundraiser, but also a way to raise awareness for the museum and a chance for people to learn an ancient art.”
“Specifically with basketry, I will reiterate the importance of connection to our ancestors through traditional arts. There are many people in the Freeman area whom I hope have their interest sparked by weaving, maybe at first just a trivet or vindspiraler or other smaller project, and then they may be motivated to try something more complicated in future classes.”
For those charged with the care and ongoing development of the Freeman museum, Viki’s willingness to partner in a boots-on-the-ground relationship matters greatly in both the immediate impact and longer-term goals.
“It was great having Viki return to her home community to share her knowledge and skills,” said Marnette Hofer, executive director and archivist at Heritage Hall. “Her family has kept alive the traditional art of willow weaving and it was very gratifying seeing the broad interest — in both geography and age — from families, friend groups, and individuals who wanted to learn from her.” And Hofer is hopeful that this type of education will continue.
“Our museum’s mission is to share the history of this area and of those who came before us,” she said, “and we would love to continue to make this history more real by offering hands-on experiences and learning opportunities, bringing history to the present.”