IACA Journal, Summer 2014 - page 10

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IACA Journal | Summer 2014
Maine Indian Basketry is a living tradition among the Houlton
Band of Maliseets, Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Passamaquoddy
Tribe and Penobscot Nation. All make splint baskets from indig-
inous brown ash and sweetgrass and in the recent years contem-
porary artists also incorporate non-indigenous cords and fibers
into their work.
Brown ash, the Basket Tree, grows in moist ground in wetlands and along inland wa-
terways. In a typical stand of brown ash only a small percentage of trees will produce
splints that are usable for making baskets and knowledge and skills passed down from
generation to generation are needed to select basket trees. The entire log or wedges of
it are pounded causing the wood to split along its annual growth rings. Splints are split
again and are then ready to use for larger baskets or they may be split with splint gauges
into a variety of widths for making fancy basket weavers and standards. Often Maine
Indian basketmakers incorporated sweetgrass
(Hierochloe odorata)
, Hong Kong cord
and other manufactured cords into their fancy basketry. Through gatherings of indige-
nous basketmakers from around the country, Maine Indian artists have begun weaving
non-traditional materials such as cedar bark, bear grass and Lauhala on ash splints.
Before contact, Maine Indians wove fish weirs and bass wood fiber bags. Oral tradition,
the intimate knowledge of plants and trees, as well as their Creation legend centering
on brown ash tree, point to the origin of basketmaking as an indigenous tradition. The
earliest basket forms include gathering and pack baskets and fish traps. After contact,
settlers acquired Maine Indian baskets for use in the home, the fields and woods. In the
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Indian peddlers commonly sold baskets
door-to-door or from seasonal encampments. Forms dating to the first half of the nine-
teenth century were utilitarian storage baskets. They often featured wide weavers dyed
with mineral pigments or vegetal dyes made from indigo, tree bark, roots, or berries.
Tree and Tradition:
Maine Indian Basketry
Other forms common in the nineteenth
century include sewing baskets, fruit
baskets, and lunch or picnic baskets. To-
wards the end of the nineteenth century,
basketmakers began to employ a variety
of new technologies and techniques
to make fancy baskets. These included
splint gauges used to divide basket mate-
rial into uniform widths for weavers and
standards and wooden blocks and molds
that allowed basketmakers to produce
baskets in uniform sizes and shapes.
Basketmakers maintained assemblages
of gauges and blocks, which continue to
this day to be passed down in families.
During this same time period, basket-
makers also began to ornament fancy
Maliseet Sweetgrass Flat by
Philomene Nelson c. 1950.
Photos courtesy of the Hudson Museum
Left: Passamaquoddy Sewing
Basket c. 1940.
Above: Pack Basket c. 1950.
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