Known as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawn,” the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet tribes of northern New England have excelled for thousands of years in basketry woven from the leaves of sweet grass and splints from the brown ash tree. Today, both older and younger generations of Wabanaki basket makers continue the tradition, making “fancy” and utilitarian baskets that merge age-old techniques of material gathering and weaving with contemporary forms, designs, and iconographies.
Pam outdusis Cunningham, a leading basket maker from the Penobscot Indian Nation of the Turtle Clan, belongs to the younger generation of Maine Indian artists, whose “fancy baskets” are based on the new basket forms created for non-Native consumption in the late nineteenth century. Cunningham’s baskets are characterized by their clearly thought-out design, which juxtapose shape, color, line, texture, and form. As she explains, “I love every aspect, every step of my basket making. I relish the fact that, in most ways, I am following in the footsteps of my ancestors. Many of the oldest and simplest traditions continue, from splitting and gauging fiber from the ash tree, to hand weaving each basket, to picking sweet grass and then braiding it for weaving into my baskets.” Cunningham hand selects and harvests brown ash from the North Maine Wood and collects sweet grass that grows along the riverbanks of the Penobscot River, surrounding Indian Island, Maine, the heart of the Penobscot Indian Nation.