Woven in Tradition
A HISTORY OF MAINE INDIAN BASKETS
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).
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
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
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
13. Basket blocks or molds, ca. 1920-40
12. Penobscot jar basket, ca. 1960
11. Penobscot knitting basket, ca. 1960