Spirit of the Basket Tree: Wabanaki Ash Splint Baskets from Maine

Posted on January 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, winter 2009
Jennifer Sapiel Neptune (Penobscot)

The "basket tree," or brown or black ash (fraxinus nigra), has had a long relationship with the Native people of northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. The splint baskets made from this tree tell a story that reflects the spirit of the weavers and tribes that turned to this tree for survival. Like many stories, there is more than one way to tell it. One version asserts that Europeans introduced ash splint basketry to Native Americans in the Delaware River Valley in the early 1700s, and that the technique then spread to the Iroquois, Great Lakes, and Northeast Tribes, who produced splint baskets primarily for colonial customers. This theory— developed by an anthropologist in 1975—questioned the indigenous origins of many First Nations peoples' basketry traditions and reduced the baskets themselves to commodities and "tourist art."

An older version of the story, however, from the First Nations people of this region, asserts that splint basketry began much earlier. As conveyed in our ancient stories of creation and survival, splint basketry was used by our ancestors for gathering, storing, and processing corn. With the arrival of European settlers in the Northeast region and the onset of disease and wars, the loss of land, and the loss of access to traditional means of subsistence, basket making became a way to survive in a cash-based economy as well as a political statement of sovereignty. For Native Americans at this time, making baskets for Native and nonNative use became a way of maintaining a traditional lifestyle while resisting the assimilationist policies of the state, provincial, and federal governments of the United States and Canada.

Spirit of the Basket Tree focuses on the basketry of the Wabanaki tribes of Maine, which include the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac, and Maliseet. Presenting historic and contemporary baskets alongside photographs and Native voices in texts and video, this exhibition places the story of these baskets and their makers into specific cultural and historical contexts that promote a deeper understanding of Wabanaki basketry as a means of survival, a form of artistic expression, and a thread connecting the cultures and traditions of the past to those of the present.

Many of the art works in Spirit of the Basket Tree are drawn from the Hood Museum of Art's extensive collection of northeastern Native American baskets. Assembled in part by Dartmouth faculty and alumni, including Professor Alfred F. Whiting (1912–1978) and Alvin H. Morrison (Class of 1957), many of these baskets are accompanied by notes and records identifying the artists' names, where they were purchased, and whom they were purchased from, as well as supporting documentation including handwritten notes, postcards, and even travel brochures. Because weavers generally did not sign their baskets, these materials constitute a rare and important source of information on this era of Wabanaki basket making.

Researching the Hood Museum of Art's collection has revealed important historical relationships between contemporary basket makers and those of the past. A Passamaquoddy spiral weave basket given by Mary Louise Warden Stewart provided an important contribution to our history. According to notes at the Hood, the basket was purchased in 1920 in the Maine town of Grand Lake Stream, near the Passamaquoddy community of Indian Township, from a "Mrs. Joe Mel." Curious to know more about who made the basket, I searched old censuses for Joe Mell, which led to the basket maker's name: Julia Ann Mell. Further research revealed that Julia, who lived from 1849 to 1930 and was known in Indian Township as Julian, was the grandmother and early teacher of the National Heritage Award–winning basket maker Mary Mitchell Gabriel. Spirit of the Basket Tree includes Julian's basket as well as works by her granddaughter Mary and her great-granddaughters Clare Gabriel, Deborah Brooks, and the late Sylvia Gabriel.

As a Penobscot basket maker myself, working with the Hood Museum's collection of Wabanaki baskets felt like visiting old friends. They have much to say about our history, and it is my hope that visitors to the Hood Museum will enjoy their beauty and the stories they tell as much as I have.

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Written January 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan