Four months after using their bare hands to pull grass out of the ground, 30 students from Miracle Academy had that grass back in their hands to make art.
The students participated in the Third Annual Sweetgrass Pulling Day at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District’s Cooper River Rediversion Project in September 2016 where they learned how to pull sweetgrass from veteran sweetgrass basket makers for the first time. This effort was part of the Charleston District’s attempt to help save a dying cultural art form from extinction. After successful events the two years prior, participants said that younger generations needed to be included so they could be taught the art and were thrilled when they were able to pass the tradition down during this event.
“Our sweetgrass program isn’t something we have to do, but it’s an opportunity that we saw as neighbors in the community to help out,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Luzzatto, Charleston District commander. “We’re helping to save a dying cultural resource simply by providing access to something we already have.”
On Jan. 20, the Charleston District went to Miracle Academy to complete the next phase of the sweetgrass art. Taught by Lynette Youson, chairperson for the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association, the students learned how to weave the same sweetgrass they had pulled at the event. The students learned how to weave circles, as they are the easiest form to make and are the core pattern to the traditional sweetgrass baskets. Youson and Charleston District personnel helped students learn how to use traditional broken and sharpened spoon handles to form holes in the ring to pull grass fronds through and around coils of the sweetgrass in order to make a loop.
Within an hour, the students had worked together to create nine sweetgrass circles. The circles, while the easiest first pattern to master, also had a different meaning. The circles were to be seen as a symbol of unity in a presentation to Mother Emanuel Church.
In 2015, the Charleston District dedicated the Second Annual Sweetgrass Pulling Day to the nine victims of the Mother Emanuel church shooting tragedy that had occurred just weeks prior. There, a cross, made of sweetgrass pulled from the CRRP, was presented to members of the church as a gift and was hung in their parish hall. Youson took the nine sweetgrass circles woven by the students and connected them with smaller grass rings. On Feb. 1, the Charleston District, Youson and the students met at Mother Emanuel Church and hung the ring of sweetgrass circles around the cross. Students spent time with the Rev. Eric Manning, a pastor at Mother Emanuel, who showed true emotions and appreciation toward them.
“When they draped the circles over the cross, it reminded us all of the fact that we are all still connected,” said Manning. “We’re all still one and we are always to be reminded.”
Hanging the sweetgrass circles around the cross at Mother Emanuel was the final chapter of this story between the Charleston District, Mother Emanuel, and the Miracle Academy students. The moment came a week after the shooter was sentenced and helped bring closure to the connection of unity felt between the three entities.