Wo­ven in Tra­di­tion


Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES - By Gretchen F. Faulkner

A his­tory of Maine In­dian bas­kets.

Maine In­dian bas­kets are tra­di­tion­ally made from black ash, which is re­ferred to as brown ash in Maine. Wood­splint bas­ketry us­ing this unique ma­te­rial ex­tends through­out the North­east and into the Great Lakes re­gion—the geo­graphic range of this tree species. Al­though bas­ket forms pro­duced by the groups liv­ing in this re­gion of­ten share sim­i­lar­i­ties, there are dis­tinct tribal and fa­mil­ial styles, es­pe­cially in Maine. All four Wa­banaki tribes in Maine—the Houl­ton Band of Maliseet, the Aroos­t­ook Band of Mic­macs, the Pas­samaquoddy Tribe and the Penob­scot Na­tion— cre­ated and con­tinue to make bas­kets from brown ash. Through­out time, bas­ket mak­ers have al­ways worked in­de­pen­dently, re­tain­ing con­trol of what they pro­duced, sell­ing di­rectly to buy­ers, and creat­ing items to meet spe­cific mar­ket niches.

Un­til re­cently, Maine In­dian bas­ket mak­ers did not sign or date their work, and an­thro­pol­o­gists largely ig­nored bas­ket mak­ing, view­ing it as a non­tra­di­tional art­form. How­ever, ob­jects in mu­seum col­lec­tions with prove­nance, his­toric im­ages (es­pe­cially pho­to­graphic post­cards), In­dian agent re­ports, and in­ter­views with con­tem­po­rary bas­ket mak­ers have shed light on the evo­lu­tion of Maine In­dian bas­ketry.

Not all brown ash is suit­able for mak­ing bas­kets, with only one in 20 trees hav­ing the right qual­i­ties for pro­duc­ing bas­ket splints. A good brown ash log for bas­ket mak­ing is straight with no branches and is at least 6 to 8 inches in di­am­e­ter. Logs are gen­er­ally cut into 8-foot lengths with some bas­ket mak­ers us­ing only the first 8 feet and oth­ers us­ing 16 or more feet of the tree trunk. Splints for bas­kets are pro­duced by pound­ing the en­tire log or sticks of it with the back of an axe or a sledge­ham­mer, which causes the tree to split along its an­nual growth rings. The splint width, usu­ally an inch to two inches, mir­rors the width of the axe poll or the width of the ash stick. The splints are gen­er­ally split again, us­ing an up­side-down V-shaped split­ter, and then they are thinned fur­ther with a knife or a me­chan­i­cal de­vice. Af­ter this, they are ready to use, or they may be split into uni­form widths with a splint gauge. Based on the thick­ness and pli­a­bil­ity of the ma­te­rial, bas­ket mak­ers de­ter­mine which splints are ap­pro­pri­ate for weavers and which are bet­ter suited for stan­dards.

In ad­di­tion to brown ash, Maine In­dian bas­ket mak­ers

in­cor­po­rate sweet­grass, a fra­grant salt marsh grass and in the mid-20th-cen­tury Hong Kong cord into their fancy bas­kets. Sweet­grass is pulled out by the roots, one blade at a time, and gath­ered into small bun­dles. It is then hung on a line to dry. When it is dry, the chaff is combed out with a wooden comb. Be­fore it is used, the grass is soaked, and it can then be wo­ven into a bas­ket a cou­ple strands at a time; it can also be braided into a thin cord and then wo­ven into a bas­ket. To­day, a wide va­ri­ety of in­dig­neous and non­indige­nous fibers may also be added, in­clud­ing East­ern white cedar, Western red cedar bark, birch­bark, bear grass from the South­west, and lauhala from Hawaii.

Prior to Euro­pean con­tact, Maine In­dian bas­ket mak­ers wove gather­ing and pack bas­kets as well as fish traps from brown ash. Ad­mired for their strength and util­ity, Maine In­dian bas­kets were read­ily adopted by colonists for use in the home, fields, and woods. Forms dat­ing to the early to mid-19th cen­tury—the ear­li­est ex­tant ex­am­ples in mu­seum col­lec­tions—were wo­ven freeform, with­out the use of molds or blocks. The ma­jor­ity of these early ex­am­ples are cov­ered stor­age bas­kets or band bas­kets, wo­ven with square bases and rounded tops, and or­na­mented with wide splint weavers that were swabbed with in­digo, Prussian blue, or chromium yel­low pig­ments. Forms dat­ing to the 1860s have a ra­dial start and are round in shape. Many were cov­ered with a fab­ric draw­string bag, which helped to pre­serve them, while oth­ers were var­nished, which helped to pre­vent the splints from break­ing.

In ad­di­tion to larger cov­ered stor­age con­tain­ers, smaller open forms were also pro­duced, in­clud­ing bas­kets used to hold sewing im­ple­ments and berry or fruit bas­kets. Some fea­tured in­digo-swabbed splints or splints dyed with veg­etable ma­te­rial, such as rasp­berry and blue­berry dyes. Bas­kets were also wo­ven us­ing a hexag­o­nal weave pat­tern, based on the same tech­nique used to in­fill snow­shoes. Gen­er­ally, hexag­o­nal wo­ven bas­kets were re­served for sewing bas­ket pock­ets and cheese or herb-dry­ing bas­kets.

Early-19th-cen­tury bas­kets were sim­ply wo­ven. Dyes were used spar­ingly on weavers and stan­dards and were made from min­eral pig­ments or plant ma­te­ri­als. To­ward the end of the 19th cen­tury in re­sponse to the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, bas­ket mak­ers be­gan to use splint gauges to pro­duce uni­form width splints, rang­ing in size from ⁄-inch to ⁄-inch. Bas­ket mak­ers also be­gan to use wooden blocks or molds, al­low­ing for the pro­duc­tion of bas­kets that main­tained con­sis­tent shapes and sizes, es­pe­cially for forms that were de­signed to store a spe­cific type of item. The ad­di­tion of sweet­grass, the use of com­mer­cial ani­line dyes, and elab­o­rate curl­work— stan­dard di­a­mond curl-loops, por­cu­pine curls (a sharp, pointed curl), and peri­win­kle curls (warts)—all came into vogue in this pe­riod.

These changes in bas­ket mak­ing oc­curred as Maine be­came a pop­u­lar sum­mer des­ti­na­tion for vis­i­tors to our state’s lakes and coast. Maine’s Na­tive Peo­ples tra­di­tion­ally mi­grated to these ar­eas to fish and gather sea­sonal food­stuffs, and they quickly be­came adept en­trepreneurs, sell­ing nov­elty goods such as birch­bark crafts, dec­o­rated pad­dles, toy bows and ar­rows, root­clubs, and more im­por­tantly, bas­kets.

Pop­u­lar sum­mer des­ti­na­tions in­cluded Bar Har­bor, which fea­tured a sea­sonal en­camp­ment where many Penob­scot and Pas­samaquoddy fam­i­lies con­gre­gated. Other fam­ily groups staked out spe­cific lo­ca­tions, re­turn­ing to the same place year af­ter year. For ex­am­ple, among the Penob­scots, the Ran­cos went to Deer Isle, Cas­tine, and Christ­mas Cove; the Danas to Rye Beach; the Shays to Ken­neb­unkport; the Tomers to Poland Springs; and the At­teans to Bar Har­bor. Pe­maquid Point saw vis­its from Mary At­tean. In ad­di­tion to goods made dur­ing the win­ter and spring, bas­ket mak­ers brought ma­te­rial with them and made bas­kets through­out the sum­mer.

For Maine In­dian fam­i­lies, bas­ket mak­ing put food on the ta­ble and paid for ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties. Nearly ev­ery­one in their com­mu­ni­ties was in­volved in some as­pect of bas­ket mak­ing, from gather­ing brown ash and sweet­grass, pound­ing ash, and braid­ing sweet­grass, to mak­ing bas­kets. Men went into the woods to har­vest brown ash, and they pounded the ash to make splints for both fancy bas­kets and work bas­kets. Women split, gauged and dyed the ash splints and pre­pared and braided sweet­grass. Fancy bas­kets were usu­ally made by women, while larger, util­i­tar­ian work bas­kets were gen­er­ally made by men.

Fancy Bas­ket Forms

Un­like work bas­kets (pack bas­kets, potato bas­kets, laun­dry bas­kets, mill bas­kets, and fish-scale bas­kets), which were used, worn out and dis­carded, fancy bas­kets des­tined for use in the home have sur­vived in sur­pris­ing num­bers.

The most com­monly found fancy bas­ket form was the sewing flat, made with brown ash stan­dards and

braided sweet­grass as weavers. Flats ranged in size from 6 to 12 inches in di­am­e­ter; found to­day, they are of­ten crammed with spools of thread and em­broi­dery floss. De­spite their sim­plic­ity, flats re­quired 100 or more yards of braided sweet­grass and rep­re­sented one to two days of la­bor just in the braid­ing of the grass. In ad­di­tion to sewing flats, Maine In­dian bas­ket mak­ers made but­ton bas­kets, pin cush­ions, nee­dle com­pacts, and thim­ble and scis­sors cov­ers. Bas­ket mak­ers also made knit­ting and tat­ting bas­ket forms, with some tat­ting bas­kets wo­ven in the shape of straw­ber­ries or acorns.

Fancy bas­ket forms served not only prac­ti­cal func­tions, but also added a dec­o­ra­tive touch to the Vic­to­rian home. Nap­kin rings, bas­kets for call­ing cards, whisk-broom hold­ers, and wall pock­ets were but a few of the forms that were made. Other house­hold forms were trays, some with glass, that were used to serve tea sand­wiches; sta­tion­ary boxes; and bas­kets that were made for use on ladies’ and gen­tle­men’s dressers. Even a woman’s hand­bag could be made from brown ash and sweet­grass. Whim­si­cal or nov­elty forms, such as ket­tles, teapots, teacups and pitch­ers, as well as hang­ing flower vases, found a ready place in the dec­o­ra­tive schemes of the Vic­to­rian home. Bas­ket col­ors com­mon to this era are scar­let red, olive green, drab, bright blue and pinks.

Some bas­ket styles were spe­cific to par­tic­u­lar tribes, such as Penob­scot curly bowls, of­ten made by mem­bers of the Tomer and Shay fam­i­lies; and At­tean bowls, a form made on a spe­cial block by the At­teans, a Penob­scot. Glass bot­tles, jars, and vases could be cov­ered with brown ash splints as ev­i­denced by many a bas­ket wo­ven over a B & M baked bean jar.

Un­like fancy bas­kets, which evolved over time and fea­tured bas­ket at­tributes—form, ma­te­ri­als, and splint col­ors—that help to date them, work bas­kets are more dif­fi­cult to date. Work bas­ket forms did not vary over time and most fea­tured min­i­mally pro­cessed splints that were not dyed. In ad­di­tion the very na­ture of these bas­kets meant that they were used, worn out and re­placed. Very few older ex­am­ples sur­vived. Among the Pas­samaquoddy of Wash­ing­ton County, fish scale bas­kets were made for lo­cal fish pro­cess­ing plants. Scales were col­lected in the bas­kets and shipped to an­other plant, which would use the scales to make pol­ishes. Most were marked with a let­ter or sym­bol, so that they could be re­turned to the fish pro­cess­ing plant. In Aroos­t­ook County, the Mic­mac and Maliseet made potato bas­kets for hand pick­ers to use dur­ing the fall har­vest. In ad­di­tion to these two re­gional forms, all four tribes made pack bas­kets—an an­cient form di­rectly as­so­ci­ated with a hunter-gather cul­ture. Other com­mon work bas­ket forms were ham­pers, feather bas­kets, laun­dry and mill bas­kets.

While work-bas­ket pro­duc­tion changed lit­tle over time, changes in con­sumer tastes and eco­nomic fac­tors im­pacted the pro­duc­tion of fancy bas­kets. In the 1920s, braided sweet­grass in­fill­ing gave way to a new weav­ing ma­te­rial—hong Kong cord. As its name im­plies, this fi­brous ma­te­rial came from Hong Kong and could be pur­chased by the skein from lo­cal stores. The use of pur­chased cord in­creased bas­ket pro­duc­tion by sav­ing enor­mous amounts of la­bor that had been de­voted to braid­ing sweet­grass. Cord also en­abled bas­ket­mak­ers to make forms that re­quired sturdy han­dles.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, bas­ket mak­ers be­gan to use com­pound molds—molds that could be taken apart so that they could be re­moved once the bas­ket had been wo­ven. Bas­kets wo­ven on com­pound molds in­clude bar­rel-shaped waste­bas­kets (an ex­tremely pop­u­lar form that dates to the 1930s) and shop­pers.

With the De­pres­sion and then World War II, the

era of trav­el­ing to sum­mer re­sorts came to an end, and many Maine Na­tives left their com­mu­ni­ties and the state to find work. Among the Penob­scots, small fam­ily-run bas­ket shops, which had al­ways been a fix­ture on In­dian Is­land, con­tin­ued to sell bas­kets and nov­elty mer­chan­dise. The largest of these busi­nesses was run by Chief Poolaw, a Kiowa, and his wife, Princess Watawaso, a Penob­scot. They em­ployed sev­eral women to make bas­kets for their Teepee Trad­ing Post. Some bas­ket mak­ers con­tin­ued to set up camp in de­part­ment stores, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son and go to fairs to sell their work. Gypsy ped­dlers came to In­dian Is­land to pur­chase bas­kets for re­sale.

Com­mon forms made dur­ing the post-world War II pe­riod in­clude tall cylin­dri­cal knit­ting bas­kets with a re­in­forced hole in the cen­ter of the cover for the yarn to come through, some of which were made on molds made from 6-inch di­am­e­ter stove pipe. Star-wrapped lug han­dles and Hong Kong cord wo­ven in a chevron pat­tern were char­ac­ter­is­tic of Penob­scot works of this pe­riod. Nearly any item could be made from brown ash, in­clud­ing bas­ketry lamps with lamp­shades. Back­ground col­ors for bas­kets in this pe­riod were brown, red, and blue, with ac­cents in green, yel­low, red, blue, and orange.

Dur­ing bas­ket mak­ing’s hey­day from the 1870s to the 1930s, over 90 per­cent of the res­i­dents of In­dian Is­land listed their oc­cu­pa­tion as bas­ket mak­ers. By the 1960s, fewer and fewer in­di­vid­u­als in Maine In­dian com­mu­ni­ties made bas­kets for a liv­ing. Many fancy-bas­ket and work-bas­ket forms were re­placed by mass-pro­duced plas­tic items. Other forms also faced ob­so­les­cence, such as the potato bas­ket. Me­chan­i­cal har­vesters with con­veyor belts re­placed potato pick­ers, re­sult­ing in lit­tle de­mand for potato bas­kets. The same holds true for the fish-scale bas­kets that the Pas­samaquoddy pro­duced. Over time, this in­dus­try de­clined, pro­cess­ing plants closed, and the need for bas­kets de­clined pre­cip­i­tously.

De­spite a re­vival of the tra­di­tion be­gin­ning in the 1990s, con­tem­po­rary artists ex­press con­cern about the per­pet­u­a­tion of brown ash and sweet­grass bas­ketry. Tra­di­tional ac­cess to ash and sweet­grass is lim­ited by new at­ti­tudes to­ward land own­er­ship. Maine’s chang­ing cli­mate also plays a role as the health of both sweet­grass and brown ash trees as it is di­rectly re­lated to lev­els of pre­cip­i­ta­tion. Drought causes brown ash tree’s crown to die back, and the growth rings that the tree pro­duces are too thin to be used for splints. In­va­sive in­sect pests, es­pe­cially the emer­ald ash borer, threaten to dec­i­mate all species of ash. Yet con­tem­po­rary bas­ket mak­ers con­tinue to evolve and in­no­vate within the tra­di­tion, creat­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary art forms.

This ar­ti­cle was ex­cerpted, up­dated and adapted from Bas­kets of Time: Pro­files of Maine In­dian Bas­ket Mak­ers (2017, Home & Away Press).

8. Penob­scot Bar­rel Waste Bas­ket Block with ini­tials “H. M.” ca. 1950. 9. Maliseet sweet­grass flat by Philomene Nel­son, ca. 1950 10. Penob­scot Straw­berry Tat­ting Bas­ket by Pauline Shay, ca. 1940 9



4. Penob­scot open sewing bas­ket, ca. 1870 5. Penob­scot Pack Bas­ket, ca. 1960 6. Penob­scot Band Bas­ket, ca. 1860 7. Split gauges and a sweet­grass comb, ca. 1900-40 5




1. A group­ing of bas­kets by con­tem­po­rary Wa­banaki weavers: Penob­scot, Pas­samaquoddy and Maliseet. 2. Penob­scot Ash Split­ter, ca. 1940 3. Penob­scot Splint Scraper, ca. 1900 2



13. Bas­ket blocks or molds, ca. 1920-40

12. Penob­scot jar bas­ket, ca. 1960

11. Penob­scot knit­ting bas­ket, ca. 1960

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