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Math graduate chosen by National Museum of the American Indian to help preserve an ancient art

Posted on Dec 1, 2009
Dennis White, '69 math grad and school administrator, is chosen by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian to help save the ancient art of finger weaving. He addresses the public Dec. 12 at the museum in Washington, D.C.


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Dennis White uses the ancient art of finger weaving to create bags and sashes.

Dennis White uses the ancient art of finger weaving to create bags and sashes.

He began with a mathematical eye for numbers and patterns. Then, with a book and lessons from a few elders, Dennis White set out on a 30-year journey into the world of finger weaving - an ancient Native American art form that today is nearly extinct.

Now the journey is taking White, a 1969 UW-Superior graduate, to Washington, D.C., as one of four people from across the United States selected for the 2009-2010 Artist Leadership ProgramThis link points to an external webpage and will open in a new browser window or tab. conducted by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. Over the next few months White will study, consult with museum experts, share his knowledge, and work to create a new generation of weavers.

Hobby, art and heritage

For White, finger weaving is an all-consuming hobby that enables him to maintain a connection with his heritage while also preserving an ancient art form.

The son of parents who were Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, White grew up in Superior and majored in mathematics at UW-Superior. He moved to the Hayward, Wis., area in 1976. Today he is administrator of the pre-K-through-12 Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School. His wife Cleora also is a UW-Superior alumna

Not long after arriving at the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, White became intrigued by finger weaving, in which weavers use their fingers instead of a loom to knot and weave yarn to make sashes, armbands, bags and other items.

Help from elders and a book

He found precious few resources to help him get started.

"I learned from a book, and from a couple of the elder ladies from here who helped me out," he said.

He began by weaving a sash using a pattern he saw in his book. Then he began using patterns from sashes he saw worn at pow wows. He began weaving other items, such as bags, and creating his own patterns.

Mathematics helps him as an artist

Fascinated by mathematics since he was in third grade, White found his academic knowledge vital to his weaving. He sees numbers in patterns, and is intrigued by multiples and symmetry.

"Almost everything (in weaving) has to be viewed from that mathematical standpoint," he said.

He uses mathematics to create patterns for yarn. If a pattern he envisions doesn't work, he writes out a mathematical solution. He keeps notebooks filled with sketches of designs and the formulas to create them. Over the years he's also devised his own weaving techniques.

It's a time-consuming art form, which White believes discourages people from pursuing it. He estimated he spends 20 to 30 hours weaving a sash. He's spent more than 100 hours weaving a belt.

He sticks with it "because it's like an addiction to do weaving," he said. "I've always got to do a little bit more to see what the next design will look like. And my daughter will give me a challenge, like she says she wants a bag with butterflies on it. I've never done butterflies before, so I try to come up with one with butterflies. Or my wife asked for a case for hand drum, so I had to do that."

Invited to the Smithsonian

Improving his work and preserving the art form is a goal that White shares with the National Museum of the American Indian's Indigenous Contemporary Arts Program, which includes the Artist Leadership Program. The leadership program enables indigenous artists to research, document, network, and develop life skills to enhance artistic growth and strengthen career development.

Through the program, White will travel to Washington, D.C., in December to conduct research at the museum. Finger weaving is so rare today that the museum staff wants him to examine the approximately 35 examples of the craft in the museum's collection. He'll also conduct research at other local museums, and receive training from museum staff in creating an electronic portfolio and a website for his work.

Public presentation Dec. 12

In addition to speaking with the museum staff, White will make a public presentation at 1 p.m. Dec. 12 in the museum's Resource Center as part of its"A Day with the Artists" event for museum visitors.This link points to an external webpage and will open in a new browser window or tab. Part of the art program also enables White to introduce others to finger weaving at an artists' workshop Feb. 26 at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College near Hayward. The workshop will include weaving and integration of Ojibwe language, culture, art, and mathematics.

White hopes the workshop will generate enough interest in the community that he can expand it into a course at the college. He also wants to use his notebooks as the basis for a new book on finger weaving. Those steps will take him even farther on his journey as becomes the elder sharing the art with a new generation of weavers.

News Contact: Al Miller | 715-394-8260 | amiller{atuws}
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