Native American Weavers Harvest Dogbane at Fort Wayne Assembly

Colonies of this once-abundant plant used for making clothing and bags grow near Indiana manufacturing facility.
Dec 1, 2014 3:00 PM ET


On a chilly, windy November Sunday, eight people climbed out of their vehicles and hiked around Fort Wayne Assembly’s grasslands. They were taking part in the ancient task of harvesting dogbane, a native plant used for making cordage, clothing and bags.

Led by Robin McBride Scott, a recipient of a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Visiting Artist Fellowship in 2008, the volunteers clipped, stripped and bundled the woody plants.

Scott and three of the volunteers are of native ancestry. Dani Tippman is an enrolled member of the Miami of Oklahoma, Scott is of Cherokee descent, Lou Rae Rumple is of Apache descent and Adele Stuerzenberger is of Crow descent.

Scott had noticed the dogbane colonies located next to Fort Wayne Assembly weeks earlier as she traveled south on Interstate-69. She contacted the plant asking for permission to harvest the plant.

“Generations ago, dogbane was plentiful in this area,” said Scott. “As people drained land for agriculture and construction, fewer and fewer colonies of the plant survived. To have so much growing in one site is wonderful!”

Before any harvesting began, Scott set the tone for the entire day, as she quietly offered tobacco and a prayer. The reddish-brown plants waved in the wind. They ranged from two feet to three feet, and sported many small branches with long seed pods. Most of the leaves had fallen off the plants already. Scott recommended that we only cut stalks with at least two feet of length uninterrupted by branches. This would ensure longer pieces of fiber. Harvesting the plants does no damage to the root system so that the plants in the spring will come right back up.

“Where these plants grow, they have been used for thousands of years by the Miami and other native peoples,” said Scott. “The natural heritage that these plants, and others, represent have been endangered by the clearing of fence rows and the use of herbicides in farming today. Finding a place where the plants are allowed to grow and thrive is culturally important. Being able to be allowed to harvest here to obtain the materials to reproduce a skirt to use in educational programs for the public is priceless.”

The volunteers soon began cutting the dogbane and setting the branchy stalks in piles around the colony. It takes approximately 1200 stalks of dogbane to make a full-length, woman’s skirt. The plant has natural anti-microbial properties, protecting its fibers from odor and rot. Anything made from the fiber would last for many years of use, and samples of garments have been found intact that are hundreds of years old.

After cutting the plants, the group stripped the branches and seed pods from the stalks by sliding their hands up the stalk. This step in the process accomplishes two things: first, it allows better bundling of the stalks, and two, it prepares the stalks for splitting.

Scott demonstrated how to continue with the next steps of the process.

First, each stalk must be split on one side, length-wise. She placed the stalk on a flat, hard surface, then gently hit the bottom of the stalk with a smooth piece of wood until it just cracked. She then ran her finger up the stalk to gently spread it apart.

She then separated the bark from the inner plant by grasping the stalk with both hands about 3-4 inches from the bottom, with the inner plant facing her. Scott gently bent the stalk until the inner woody part of the plant cracked and began to pull slightly away from the bark. Holding the stalk with one hand, she pulled the inner plant piece away from the bark with her other hand. She repeated this step in small sections, until all of the inner woody part of the plant was separated and discarded.

Long strands of fibrous bark remained. McBride Scott continued the process by retting, or rolling, the fibers between her hands to loosen the exterior bark, leaving the strong fibers that are then ready to be used for making cordage or yarn.

“Keep in mind that each stalk produces about one foot of fiber,” explained McBride Scott. “It takes a long time, but I love it.” Once dried, the fibers can be dyed or left a natural tan that will bleach out to white in the sun.

Next April, Scott will join Fort Wayne Assembly at the local Earth Day celebration and demonstrate how she weaves this fiber into garments.

As part of its environmental education and stewardship program, Fort Wayne Assembly works with many organizations, clubs, and interested individuals to enhance the site and the community.

The facility hosts one of 43 programs certified by the Wildlife Habitat Council, helping move General Motors one step closer to the company’s goal of one wildlife habitat certification at each manufacturing site where feasible by 2020.