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Overview of Maine Indian basketry

Otter, Passamaquoddy, splitting ash log into splints
Jeremy Frey, Passamaquoddy, pulling ash splint into thinner splints
Pam oudusis Cunningham, Penobscot, braiding tidal sweetgrass
Ganessa, Penobscot, weaving a miniature point basket
Basketmaker's tools, ash splints, ash gauges, unfinished basket and chocolate

Baskets have been made by Maine and Eastern Canadian basketmakers, members of the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamoquoddy and Penobscot tribes, since prior to the arrival of Europeans. The four tribes are collectively called the Wabanaki. Their baskets are woven from primarily from brown ash, “the basket tree” which grows in swampy areas throughout the most northern Northeast. Often a grass found only in tidal marshes, Northeastern sweet grass, is added to the brown ash. This grass is either braided or used plain. It can be added to the rim of a basket or used as the “weavers” over the brown ash foundation. Sometimes it is used in conjunction with brown ash weavers to form a design. In other baskets designs are made by “curling” the thin brown ash splints in one of several decorative shapes and adding these curls to the outer body of the basket.

In future monthly newsletters I will go into more detail writing about the earliest baskets, the Victorian era baskets, the pre-WW II baskets as well as some months featuring individual basketmakers. I have already featured Clara Keezer, Passamaquoddy basketmaker. You can read that article on this website in this "news" section. I will discuss utility baskets, fancy baskets and whimsical baskets such as the cup, teapot, chair, acorn, strawberry and similar baskets. Should you want to be made aware of when these articles are posted, find the "Subscribe to our mailing list" button at the bottom of the home and other pages, type in your email address - submit and you will receive monthly notices which include links to the featured article as well as information about special sales and more.

Among the earliest baskets are fish weirs, woven traps to be set at the mouths of tidal rivers. Pack baskets, canoe baskets and large storage baskets are speculated to be other early basket types. Making a brown ash splint basket begins with a good brown ash log that is straight and at least 6” in diameter. The log is split in half, then quarters, then trimmed and squared with a draw knife. With an iron sledge, the stick is pounded until it separates along its growth rings, producing splints which are split in half and scraped smooth with a crooked knife. The splints can be used or split further with a gauge into widths ranging from 1/16” to 1/2”.

Above are photos illustrating the making of a basket.

Top picture, Otter, Passamaquoddy, splitting an ash log
Second picture, Jeremy Frey, Passamaquoddy, pulling an ash splint into 2 thinner splints
Third picture, Pam Cunningham, Penobscot, braiding tidal sweetgrass
Fourth picture, Ganessa, Penobscot, weaving a basket
Fifth picture, a basketmaker's toolkit - splint gauges, ash splints, braided sweetgrass and a partially woven basket - with a couple of chocolate bars

Only a handful of books have been written about the historical context of these baskets while scores of texts describing Western Native American baskets line the shelves. Much of what I know comes from years of personal experience with the baskets and with current Northeastern Native basket makers. Many years ago Richard Silliboy, MicMac, showed me how to find a straight brown ash tree to be cut and prepared to make into baskets. He then demonstrated to me how he pounds the ash log until it splits along the growth rings. Further splitting is done with a crooked knife and sometimes the help of a simple wooden device called a “splitter”. Wooden gauges with metal teeth then score and cut the ash splints to exact widths. Next a basket is woven with these, either free form or over simple to very complex wooden molds.

Baskets have been part of Maine and Northeastern Native American economy for at least 300 years. Today, the four Maine Indian tribes are the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, known collectively as the Wabanaki, "People of the Dawnland." For the Wabanaki trade with early European colonists included baskets, food and canoes. The Wabanaki story of creation includes the brown ash tree, showing their long and powerful connection with their “basket material”. All Northeast tribes use tidal sweet grass in their ceremonies as a smudger. When burned this material helps sends their prayers aloft to the creator. Tidal sweet grass is the second indigenous material used in basket making. Unbraided, the grass is used to weave over a foundation of brown ash splints to create a basket that is tighter and can therefore hold smaller items such as seeds. Braided, tidal sweet grass becomes an elegant decorative material that has added beauty to the Northeastern tribal baskets for at least two hundred years. About 1920 a commercial material replaced braided tidal sweet grass, Hong Kong cord was used from then until just before 1940, when it was unavailable due to the difficulty in obtaining it prior to and during WWII. When Hong Kong cord is found in a basket, it very decisively dates it. Baskets can be dated other ways as well. Aniline dye was introduced to Northeast basket makers during the 1860’s and by 1870 was almost exclusively the only dye type used. Prior to that vegetal dyes and earlier “commercial” dyes such as indigo, chromium yellow, and Prussian blue were used. These were expensive and difficult to use. They were most commonly swabbed only on the exterior of the splint to be dyed in order to save money, these early dyes don’t fade much when exposed to light. Aniline dye was cheap, easy to use and so basket makers soaked the entire splint in the aniline dye bath. The aniline dye color fades when exposed to light.

Baskets pre-1880 were mostly utilitarian although some were quite beautiful. About 1860 the addition of curl work appeared as a decorative element on some baskets. It seems the first curl style was the porcupine curl, a sharp curl made by twisting the ash splint. This curl is called "Porcupine curl" by some basketmakers today, others call it "twist curl" yet others call it simply "point curl". From about 1880 until about 1920 some baskets were elaborately decorated with curls, fancy baskets made mostly for decorative purposes were very popular and basketmakers responded by making very fine baskets in many forms and shapes. At that time "women's work baskets" were also in demand, mainly used to hold sewing implements and for related crafts. Furniture size "sewing stands" which had 1, 2 or 3 large baskets woven around wooden legs, were meant to be placed by a chair to hold all a lady's sewing accoutrements nearby while she worked. From the furniture size to the tiny thimble covers and scissors cases, these baskets were in demand. Knitting, crochet and tatting baskets had holes in the lids for the yarn or thread to come out but the rest to be held untangled inside. Round flat sewing baskets were made from 5" to 18" in diameter as well as button baskets, handkerchief baskets, glove box baskets and so many more styles were used for sewing or holding items of clothing.

In the 1920's to 40's fancy basket styles became less elaborate, but remained well made. After the 1940's through the late 1980's there was not much of a market for Maine Indian baskets and the number of forms and styles produced declined as in general did the quality of the work.

More about Antique Maine / Wabanaki Indian baskets on this website

Tree & Tradition: Maine Native American Basketmaking - University of Maine, Hudson Museum

Passamaquoddy Creation Legend “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.”– Molly Sepsis, Passamaquoddy in Charles G. Leland, Algonquin Legends (1884).

We are now in a Maine Indian basketry revival. Since 1990 3 Passamaquoddy basketmakers have won a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Award; Mary Mitchell Gabriel in 1994, Clara Keezer in 2002 and Molly Neptune Parker in 2012. The Heard Museum, Phoenix, invitational Indian Market and the SWIA Santa Fe Indian Market are arguably the most prestigious juried Native American art shows. In recent years several Maine Indian basketmakers have won first and/or second places in their divisions - these include Passamaquoddies Jeremy Frey and Otter, (Eric Otter Bacon) Passamaquoddy as well as Penobscots Theresa Secord, Jennifer Neptune, and Ganessa. In 2011 Jeremy Frey became only the 2nd artist in 85 years to win Best of Show at both events in the same year. (If I missed anyone who won a ribbon at these events PLEASE contact me so I can add their names here) There are several other basketmakers producing similar quality work, some have never entered a juried show; others, especially the younger basketmakers, have yet to win but certainly have the potential. These include Passamaquoddy George Neptune and Penobscots Barbara Francis, Sarah Sockbeson and sisters Pam Cunningham and Kim Bryant. MicMac basketmakers Richard Siliboy and Mary Sanipass make very high quality utilitarian baskets; potato, canoe, pack and gathering baskets that are not only work baskets but works of art.

Jeremy Frey and Otter, (Eric Otter Bacon) have elevated their work from widely renowned "Native American Art" to renowned art... Jeremy was a 2011 recipient of a $50,000 United States Artists grant - the grantees included architects, poets, dance troupes, painters, musicians and more. The Fuller Craft Museum featured works by Otter, (Eric Otter Bacon) and Jeremy Frey in it's juried and invitational exhibit All Things Considered VI.

The threat to Maine Indian basketry now is not the lack of interest from the "market" nor the lack of talent or skill of the basketmakers; rather it is the Asian import - the Emerald Ash Borer beetle. Recently imported to this country, this beetle while not yet in Maine, has decimated ash groves in neighboring states and may cause the ash to become extremely rare forcing the basketmakers to make fewer baskets.

More about current Maine / Wabanaki Indian baskets on this website

Transcending Traditions - University of Maine, Hudson Museum

The Next Generation and Maine Indian Basketry - Transcending Traditions features five contemporary Maine Indian basketmakers who represent the next generation: Jeremy Frey, Ganessa Bryant, Sarah Sockbeson, George Neptune and Eric “Otter” Bacon.