Ancient art form feels rejuvenated in Maine

Email|Print| Text size + By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / December 3, 2006

ORONO, Maine -- A steady drumbeat accompanied by chant-like singing is drawing a crowd. In the center is a large drum, the four men around it each striking it in rhythm as they sing in their native tongue. Men, women, and children dressed in traditional garb dance around them, their moccasin-clad feet stepping quickly in a pattern that has been passed down for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Onlookers are here shopping for baskets whose patterns might be just as old.

On the second Saturday of December each year, the Hudson Museum on the University of Maine campus here hosts the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance Sale, a free, one-day show and sale of traditional arts by Maine's Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot communities, collectively known as Wabanaki or People of the Dawn.

" [Basketry] is the oldest art form in North America," says Theresa Secord , a basketmaker and the executive director of the alliance. "There are thousands of years of tradition behind it, and still only a handful of people practicing it."

When the festival began 12 years ago, "all the traditions were endangered," says Gretchen Faulkner, the museum's director. "Most of the basket makers were in their 60s to 80s, and the traditions weren't being passed down. This was a way of encouraging the perpetuation of the traditions." The event also complements the anthropology museum's exhibitions about Maine's Native Americans through historical displays and live demonstrations .

"It's really a unique opportunity to come and experience a true celebration of Wabanaki culture," Secord says. "There really aren't other opportunities to come and see the array of artists and be able to purchase their work directly and also to see people doing traditional dancing, singing , and demonstrations of their art." It's also an opportunity to purchase quill jewelry, woodcarvings, and other works of art .

When Secord makes a basket, she weaves together more than ash and sweetgrass. She works on forms that have been in her family for generations, uses skills learned from her mentor, master basket maker Madeline Shay, and draws on the collective wisdom of her ancestors and community. "I like that. I like the help from my ancestors, not just in the physical presence of wooden forms, but also the history and spiritual presence of the basket makers in my family," she says. "It all comes through in the basket: tribe, family, tradition."

Tribe, family, tradition is a refrain that resonates through the festival, from the performers to the artisans. There are distinctions in the art forms that show in basketry including family weaves and styles. Passamaquoddies and Penobscots are known for embellishment and using sweetgrass. Micmacs and Maliseets traditionally craft bigger work baskets and harvest baskets. But the distinctions are blurring.

Every basket starts as a tree that must be selected, felled, chopped, then pounded to separate the rings, stripped , thinned, split, then scraped until it looks and feels like silk. "As many as three or four people may have a hand in a basket by the time it's done," Secord says. Some specialize in finding and harvesting the tree; others in preparing the materials. Some gather sweetgrass; still others specialize in braiding it. "It's a community process; a community makes the basket," Secord says.

Fancy baskets feature intricate patterns, specialty weaves, such as porcupine quills, and often are colored with natural dyes. Some are woven in unusual shapes, such as blueberries, strawberries, corn , or acorns. Traditional work baskets were designed for utilitarian purposes, such as harvesting potatoes, fishing, and hunting, but most have evolved into decorative objects. The uniqueness and quality draw collectors from as far away as California, who prize both fancy and work baskets as art forms, yet anglers and hikers still purchase fishing creels and pack baskets for their intended uses.

Secord expects 30 to 40 artisans at the Dec. 9 event, from apprentices to masters, including Eldon Hanning. The Micmac basket maker is one of the few people in Maine with the knowledge to harvest and prepare ash from tree to basket, and he will demonstrate the pounding, thinning, splitting, and scraping process.

Other attendees may include National Heritage Fellowship winner Clara Neptune Keezer; nationally acclaimed birchbark basket maker and canoe maker David Moses Bridges; innovative young basket maker Jeremy Frey, whose work is in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian; and other award winners, such as Pam Cunningham and Secord. Many will share tables with apprentices, who often are family members.

Bridges, 44, grew up in the traditions, not realizing they were endangered. His grandmother was a basket maker, and he gathered materials for her and made her tools. His great-grandfather was one of the last Passamaquoddy canoe makers, but he passed away when Bridges was 10, so they never built one together. Bridges knew from age 6 that he wanted to work in birchbark and build a canoe. "I didn't realize until later that it was almost a lost art and one of the oldest and most traditional arts of the Wabanaki people," he says. Bridges is training both his son and his nephew in the arts.

Bridges's creative process, like Hanning's, begins in the woods. He not only builds canoes in the traditional manner, with cedar, maple, birchbark , and spruce root, but also handcrafts his tools. "It's all about finding the materials," he says. That's especially relevant today, when brown ash is endangered by disease and sweetgrass is threatened by coastal development.

He will do a brief demonstration of splitting roots and finishing a small basket. "I'll also have some extra pieces for kids to do some etching, and people can try splitting roots," he says. "It's a beautiful thing for children to see what they're capable of, to see what they can do with materials that come from the earth; that was a tree, now it's a basket."

Beyond the sales, demonstrations, singing, dancing , and storytelling, the festival helps sustain Maine's Native American culture in other ways. As Bridges notes, it adds "to the awareness that we're not gone, and we're not going anywhere. We're still here after all those years of troubles, and we have the same values and same love of community we've always had."

Contact Hilary Nangle, a freelance writer and editor in Waldoboro, Maine, at hilary@hilarynangle.com.

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