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November / December 2003

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Power of the Basket Tree


Power of the Basket Tree
Cultural preservation is woven into the art of Maine Indian basketmakers


Brown ash splint baskets tell tales
The University of Maine Hudson Museum collection includes a brown ash splint band box circa 1860.

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Just as brown ash plays a central role in the legends of the Wabanaki people, the splint baskets made from the trees tell important stories.

As one of Maine's earliest indigenous artforms, brown ash splint baskets now found in museum collections and exhibits reflect the artistry, history and heritage of the four Native American tribes in Maine. At the University of Maine, the Hudson Museum's Maine Native American collection includes traditional basketmaking tools and more than 180 baskets, dating from the 1850s to the present.

Most recently, the first national exhibition of Native American Basketry, The Language of Native American Baskets: From the Weavers' View, opened at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in New York City. Wabanaki baskets and Native basketweaving organizations are prominently featured.

But perhaps even more important, the ancient and once endangered Wabanaki basketmaking tradition is alive in Maine, perpetuated by a strong commitment to cultural preservation by the state's tribal communities. A number of state and local organizations have supported the Wabanaki effort, including the University of Maine, which provides assistance in the form of educational outreach, economic development expertise and forestry research.

The renaissance started in 1993 with the establishment of the nonprofit Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, a Native American arts service organization dedicated to preserving and documenting the ancient traditions of ash and sweetgrass basketry among the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in Maine.

Basket by Barbara Francis, Penobscot.

Glooskap came first of all into this country . . . into the land of the Wabanaki, next to sunrise. There were no Indians here then . . . and in this way, he made man: He took his bow and arrows and shot at trees, the basket-trees, the Ash. Then Indians came out of the bark of the Ash-trees.

Creation legend
Translated by Molly Sepsis,
Passamaquoddy, 1884

At its inception, 55 basketmakers, many of them elders, formed the alliance. They included Mary Mitchell Gabriel and Clara Neptune Keezer, Passamaquoddy master basketmakers. In 1994 and 2002, respectively, both women received National Heritage Fellowship Awards, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the past 10 years, a new generation of Maine Native Americans has started learning the artform through alliance-sponsored basketmaking workshops and year-long apprenticeships for tribal members, supported in part by the Maine Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Today, membership in the alliance has more than doubled, and the average age of the basketmakers has dropped from 63 to 43. Through a new partnership with UMaine's Wabanaki Center, the alliance's teaching programs in the Passamaquoddy community are supplemented with the Passamaquoddy language.

According to Theresa Secord Hoffman, co-founder and director of the alliance, Maine Indian basketmaking is a living art that celebrates and shares the Native culture in Maine.

"We are an intertribal, nonprofit organization that represents the artistic Native population. This is not a tribal, state or federal government initiative. It's a group of artisans 120 of us who believe in preserving our own traditions and making sure they are here to be handed down to the next generations. We started teaching and apprenticeship programs, and gatherings and markets for basketmakers to save our culture and the oldest artform in Maine," says Hoffman, who last month was one of 34 women from 23 countries to receive the Women's Creativity in Rural Life Prize, awarded by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.

From the alliance's start, the loss of elder basketmakers was not the only factor threatening the future of Native basketmaking. In the late 1980s, Wabanaki basketmakers were concerned about the declining health of brown ash trees that threatened their livelihoods and cultural tradition. It was at the first meeting of basketmakers with tribal, federal and state foresters, and UMaine forestry experts on campus that the alliance was formed and a Brown Ash Task Force established.

Brown ash, as it is called in Maine, or black ash (Fraxinus nigra) trees, are found in wetlands and along streams. The species makes up less than 1 percent of the Maine forest. Splints for weaving are made by pounding straight, knot-free logs at least 6 inches in diameter and up to 12 feet long so that the wood separates along its growth rings. Brown ash in poor health limits the availability of basket-quality wood because the growth rings are too thin for splints.

UMaine forestry researchers looked for causes of the decline and ways to regenerate the species. In a cooperative research program, the university worked with the Maine and U.S. Forest Services, and the alliance. Scientists found that brown ash stands have been declining throughout the last century. An extensive decline that began in central Maine in 1985 spread north within two years, most likely because of climate changes that cause spring drought and winter flooding.

Also in the past decade, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance found support for its educational and economic development efforts throughout the state. Alliance members gather to sell baskets at three annual events: at the Native American Festival at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, in cooperation with the Abbe Museum, in July; at the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association's Common Ground Fair in Unity in September; and at the Maine Indian Basketmakers Sale and Demonstration at UMaine's Hudson Museum in December.

"We started the Basketmakers Sale and Demonstration in 1994 to promote awareness and appreciation of Maine Indian culture and traditions," says Gretchen Faulkner, Hudson Museum acting director. In addition to the sale of the unique brown ash and sweetgrass baskets, and demonstrations on basketmaking, the event features traditional singing, drumming, storytelling and foods.

Some collectors of Native American baskets travel to Maine from as far away as Arizona, Illinois and New York for the opportunity to purchase Maine Indian baskets directly from the artists.

To encourage the tradition and to market their work, the alliance has taken steps to assist its members. In 2000, it published A Wabanaki Guide to Maine, an arts and heritage tourism guide to the state's tribal cultural heritage. The next year, the Wabanaki Arts Center opened in Old Town, Maine, as a gallery and retail shop for the alliance the only Native-owned, nonprofit Native American basketry and art gallery in New England.

Last year, the alliance co-sponsored a business and marketing assistance workshop with the Maine Rural Development Council, an affiliate of University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The council has worked in the tribal communities for many years. For the tribal artisan entrepreneurs, the council's economic development professionals have assisted with such issues as pricing, financial management and networking.

In its annual report to the National Rural Development Partnership, the council noted that "cultural preservation and entrepreneurial development are important components of survival for Maine's First Nations. Both aspects address the essential ingredients in sustaining rural development: community capacity-building, individual empowerment, cultural affirmation, and local wealth creation and retention."

The alliance can be a model for other tribes, cultures and groups of artisans, says Hoffman. "The lesson in our experience is that the long-term approach is the only way. The ancient traditions of basketmaking were meant to be carried on and we're doing what we can to make sure that happens, but there's never any guarantee. It took us nine years to have enough basketmakers to open a gallery. Now we have 40 basketmakers and 20 other Native artists represented, including a dozen young artists who were not known. That ripple effect is the true measure of success."

by Margaret Nagle
November-December, 2003

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