Power of the Basket Tree
Cultural preservation is woven into the art of Maine Indian
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.
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.
Translated by Molly Sepsis,
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
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
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
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
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.