The Wabanaki art of basketmaking has been passed down from generation to generation, but there’s a new threat to its future
by Katy Kelleher
Photography by Nicole Wolf
Issue: September 2020
“Glooskap came first of all into this country, into Nova Scotia, Maine, Canada, into the land of the Wabanaki, next to sunrise. There were no Indians here then (only wild Indians very far to the west). First born were the Mikumwess, the Oonabgemessuk, the small Elves, little men, dwellers in rocks. 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.” From “Glooskap the Divinity,” The Algonquin Legends of New England, Charles Godfrey Leland, 1884
Maine didn’t exist until two hundred years ago. That’s a minor blip on the timeline of geological history, a small portion of the timeline of biological history, a single entry in the timeline of human history. For centuries, Maine wasn’t. But there was land here, and there were people here. And anywhere that people exist, art does too.
Of all the art forms practiced by indigenous people in this region, the weaving of ash baskets is perhaps the broadest and deepest tradition. Birch bark baskets also have a great and significant history, and there are certainly carvings to be mentioned, but baskets occupy a special place in Wabanaki culture. “Basketmaking, and all our art forms, was what helped us survive and adapt,” explains Penobscot weaver Jennifer Neptune, director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she says. “The glacier was here 20,000 years ago. The water level was different. The Gulf of Maine had islands in it that are now just banks. We know our ancestors were hanging around during that time, because scallop draggers and fishermen bring things up from the ocean floor. We’ve been here longer than 13,000 years.”
Baskets, she explains, were made first for practical use. These were the work baskets, the storage baskets. Made from wide strips of pounded, flexible ash wood, they were strong and durable. “Everything about ash that makes it a junk wood for other industries makes it incredibly great for weaving baskets,” explains Passamaquoddy basketweaver Gabriel Frey. “Black ash is an incredibly fibrous hardwood. When we pound it, we are reverse-engineering how nature puts the tree together. What we are doing is taking the cellular structures of a tree and rearranging them into a usable container.” Ash pack baskets (“one of our most ubiquitous traditions,” notes Frey) helped people move from place to place. For their own pleasure, people also made fancy baskets, distinguished from the storage containers by their tight weave, small scale, and decorative function.
Once colonizers arrived and began to forcibly seize land and slaughter the native population, baskets took on a new meaning, particularly the fancy baskets. At first, the Wabanaki Nations (a group of peoples that includes the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy) traded their storage baskets and fancy baskets for dried beans or other foods. Then, as time went on and the U.S. government demanded more and more assimilation, the practice of weaving baskets became a way to resist demands that the Wabanaki settle in one place. For thousands of years, the Wabanaki had been traveling inland in the winter to hunt, to the coast in the summer to escape the flies and gather clams, fish, eggs, and sweetgrass. “They wanted to turn us into farmers, but we were hunters and gatherers,” says Neptune. “It was an act of sovereignty to say no and go where we wanted. To go to the coast to sell baskets, or go to New York City, or Philadelphia. To say, no one will stop us.”
The sale of art, she explains, “built our communities.” It enabled students to pay for college. It kept families fed. It bought clothes and cars and houses. “It’s more than just a basket,” says Neptune. “It’s cultural survival.” There are many ways of looking at a basket, just as there are many ways of seeing a painting or reading a poem. Each person brings their own experiences to a work of art, their own biases. This can be a beautiful thing, like when an image moves you to tears. It can also be a poisonous thing, like when a creation is dismissed out of hand, devalued, destroyed. Sometimes, objects are revered but their makers are not.
For a long time, U.S. art institutions didn’t consider fancy baskets to be art, but this has begun to change. According to Neptune, Wabanaki art and craft was once “relegated to history and anthropology museums, to the past.” She says, “That’s too bad. By not looking at contemporary artists, you miss out on so much. You only get a sliver of the story, and the whole cake is better than a slice.”
It isn’t possible to present the whole cake in a single article, a single museum exhibit, or even in a single book. But Tilly Laskey, curator of the Maine Historical Society, has been trying to showcase basketweavers both past and present. “Wabanaki history is Maine history,” she says. She is working to change the perception of “what is art and what isn’t.” “A pot made in ancient Greece was put in an art museum, but something made by Wabanaki people didn’t go into a museum. Or pots made in the Southwest weren’t in the art museum,” Laskey points out. These choices reflected the values of white culture and worked to uphold and reproduce them. In Holding Up the Sky, a 2019 exhibition curated by Laskey and eight Wabanaki scholars and experts, the Maine Historical Society showcased a mix of historical objects and contemporary pieces. The aim was to educate viewers on how things were made, how they were used, how artists are still working within the various traditions today, and to provide context that a visitor to an ordinary art museum or gallery might not get. For instance, historical baskets were shown alongside the forms they were made on and next to jewelry featuring basketweaving techniques, as well as nonfunctional, purely decorative “baskets” by contemporary artists. The opening, Laskey says, was “the best night of my life,” the result of years of efforts to recenter Native voices and move toward “sharing authority” within the organization. But, she notes, “we have so far to go still.”
Exhibitions like this one show a non-Native audience an element of culture that exists alongside mainstream U.S. culture. They help educate Mainers and visitors about an underrepresented and often misun-derstood practice. Basketmaking is neither something of the past nor a newly revived phenomenon—it’s ongoing; it ebbs and flows. “I remember living with my gram and her sons, my uncles, and watching them pound ash,” says Passamaquoddy artist Debra Nicholas. “I would wake up to the sound of pounding ash. It sounds musical. You’d hear someone pounding it on one side of the road, and then you’d hear it again coming from the other side.” Life on the Maine reservations was filled with these moments, the call-and-response noise of breaking down wood, the rituals of going out to collect sweetgrass, ash, and porcupine quills, the many stages of pounding and braiding and dying and weaving. “It even sounds like music when you’re braiding sweetgrass,” says Nicholas, who grew up watching her mother and her aunts work on their baskets, fingers flying.
Like her cousin, Kenny Keezer, Nicholas learned basketmaking from watching her relatives and neighbors, including Clara Keezer and Theresa Gardner. They grew up with basketweaving happening all around them on the reservation, and as children they tried their hand at weaving their own fancy baskets, creating small baskets shaped like strawberries, blueberries, and bells. As adults, they found that making baskets wasn’t just an interesting hobby or a way to keep their hands busy—it was a viable way to make a living. “I tried construction,” says Kenny, “but I didn’t like it. The only thing left for me to do was to make baskets.” (Plus, Nicholas adds, “His work is just good. It reminds me of his mom’s work. I’ll see one and say, wow, that looks like Clara’s work. You can see it.”)
Kenny and Nicholas learned from Clara and Gardner, who learned from their elders. Now, their kids are learning from them. This is how an artistic tradition manages to span thousands and thousands of years. It’s one maker teaching one apprentice, over and over. As the tradition changes hands, it evolves. While using ash strips to weave baskets is an ancient practice, most weavers working today are making objects that would surprise their ancestors. They’re experimenting with color, form, function.
They’re adding new decorative flourishes. “I’m always thinking about how I can do something differently,” says Nicholas. “I’ll see something in nature, in the world around me, and it will inspire me to make a new basket, to make it different.”
For Frey, the urge to innovate began over a decade into his basketmaking career. “I was always a strict purist when it came to form, but then about seven years ago, I remembered something my grandfather said in his teachings,” he explains. “He said he could teach me how he makes baskets, but I had to learn how I make baskets.” Frey had been wondering for some time about how to bring the art form into the twenty-first century and make it relevant and useful for contemporary people. “I was thinking things like, ‘Why not have a pack basket for yoga? Why not have one you can carry on the subway?’” He began using the fancy basket techniques to create large, practical carriers for yoga mats and books. He began to create small, delicate handbags that you could take on a night out (including one stunning rainbow-hued handbag he made for a private client because “they wanted something really special for Pride,” he says).
Jeremy Frey, Gabriel’s brother, has also spent the past few decades innovating. “I’m seeking to elevate baskets to the level of luxury handbags, but Jeremy’s in a whole different realm,” Gabriel says. “He’s making fine art.” From the 1990s onward, the Freys have seen an increase in respect for their wares, which Jeremy credits to the creation of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance in 1993. “I believe that program changed things,” Jeremy says. “It kicked off a new wave of basketry.” It helped makers connect to other makers, to buyers, and to new sources of inspiration and education. Jeremy says that when he first started making his dramatic fine art pieces, he faced a lot of pushback from the elders. “They couldn’t understand,” he says. “They were trapped in tradition.”
But Jeremy didn’t want to stagnate, and he didn’t want to see this art form he loved so much stagnate either. He kept pushing and pushing, making ever more intricate objects, like baskets that nestle within each other, baskets that are unable to be opened, baskets that are shaped like urns and others shaped like urchins. These baskets sell for hundreds—even thousands—of dollars. (Price is determined by size, shape, and complexity. For instance, the price for a custom basket decorated with porcupine quills starts at $1,000 and go upward from there.)
“I respect the people who use the original designs so much,” Jeremy says. “It’s like hearing a language, seeing their work. It’s beautiful. But it’s not for me. I have to redesign.” His work, he says, carries “an energy.” That’s how he knows a piece is worth its price, worth its place in a fine art institution. “When you see a piece, and you know—you know if there is an energy there. It’s something that can’t be replicated. You know if it’s art.”
We’re living during a time of instability. We don’t know what damage climate change will cause—not really, at least. We have models and ideas. We know it is causing more “weather events” and increasing the spread of certain diseases. We know the sea is rising. We also know the emerald ash borer, an invasive species of jewel beetle native to Asia, has come to Maine. Like climate change, it’s already here. Since its introduction to North America in the early 2000s, the emerald ash borer has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees. Humans spread the disease by moving forest products (usually firewood) from one region to another. No ash species native to North America is resistant to the burrowing pest. Even in Maine’s isolated forests, where the pest has been slow to take hold, it’s already doing damage.
For some people, this means the end of an era. Gabriel Frey views the coming infestation as a looming apocalypse. “Ultimately, I think basketweaving as we practice it is headed for extinction. Probably within my lifetime, and I don’t think there is a way to stop it,” he says. “I see a tsunami crossing the country. A millennium-old art form is on the verge of extinction. That is one of the prices of globalization.”
Without black ash trees, the many basketweavers can’t continue doing their work. Jeremy has been focusing his energy on building up a store of ash, but that will run out. “No matter what we artists do, there will come a point where we can no longer make ash basketry,” he says. “Even if I can still produce work and make a living, it’s a crazy loss. It’s like the loss of a language, or a sacred ceremony you never do again. It hurts inside.” Ash is central to Wabanaki myths, to the culture. Ash leaves flutter through the histories of the peoples. Ash fibers tell the story of seasonal movements, cultural resistance, and contemporary innovation. That’s not something that can be easily replaced, even if you can find other materials to work with.
Still, Neptune keeps hope alive. She believes they may be able to mitigate the damage done by emerald ash borers, that science may still find a way to stop the spread of this pest. “We have so much,” she points out. “We have other weaving traditions of basswood and cedar bark, other materials.” No matter what happens, art will persist. She knows that.
Neptune also draws strength and hope from the stories of her ancestors. “We’ve been here,” she says, “adapting to all the changes, all the fluctuations in climate, in sea level. We’ve been here for the tundra turning to trees turning to dense forests. Our ancestors were here and learned to survive contact with settlers. All these things, they found ways to deal with.” Right now, as coronavirus continues to sweep across communities and through hospitals, Neptune thinks it is more imperative than ever to honor our artistic impulses, to embrace the opportunities that we have. “Each day is not guaranteed. That’s in our face right now,” she says. “What will you do with it? What will you make with what you have been given? Do it now. Don’t wait.”