Contemporary

contemporary baskets
Clockwise from left: cradle, Theresa Secord Hoffman, Penobscot, loaned by Theresa Secord Hoffman; picnic basket, Jim Tomah, Maliseet, loaned by Rosella J. Silliboy; potato basket, Richard Silliboy, Micmac, loaned by Richard Silliboy; fancy basket, Clara Keezer, Passamaquoddy, Hudson Museum collection.

[callout]“It’s harder and harder to find good trees and there’s not enough wood in Aroostook County to make as many potato baskets as we used to. There’s less trees to choose from than there were forty years ago.”
— Richard Silliboy, Micmac Master Basketmaker[/callout]

Continuing Tradition (Go to Contemporary Baskets Gallery)

Contemporary basketmakers are concerned about the quality and diminishing supply of brown ash. In the late 1980s, brown ash throughout Maine died back; branches and leaves were lost, bark peeled off the tops of trees and the trees’ annual growth rings became too thin to produce splints for baskets. The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, the United States Forest Service, the Maine Forest Service and The University of Maine’s Department of Forest Ecosystem Science joined together to investigate the problem which threatened not only basketmakers’ livelihoods but also their ability to perpetuate basketmaking. Researchers found that the trees’ decline was linked to climatic events, such as summer droughts and damage to the trees’ root system from winter flooding and freezing. Although this is a natural process, a cycle of death and rebirth, researchers caution that it is important to pay attention to changes in our ecosystem, particularly the impact of humans in this natural process, in order to ensure that brown ash survives for future generations.

[callout]“Sometimes I get a little lonesome… but then I say, ‘No, God’s been good to you… you know how to make baskets.’ I love to make them. I’ve said so many times that that’s my life. When I get sick, I ask God not to let me get sick because I want to make more baskets. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t make baskets.”
— Mary Mitchell Gabriel, 1994 National Heritage Fellow, Passamaquoddy Master Basketmaker[/callout]

Through the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, the Maine Arts Commission has been a catalyst in assuring that Maine Native American basketmaking traditions are perpetuated. The program provides an opportunity for recognized, master traditional artists to pass on their skills to qualified apprentices.

Basketmaking skills are learned informally, by watching and doing. Skills are passed from elders to younger people and from family member to family member. Since 1990, 85 Maine Indian basketry apprenticeships have been supported through this program, funded through the National Endowment for the Arts. The Maine Arts Commission also recognized four basketmakers, making them Individual Artist Fellows. Two Maine Indian basketmakers have received the National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Fellow Awards; Mary Mitchell Gabriel, Passamaquoddy, in 1994; and Clara Keezer, Passamaquoddy in 2002. From the brown ash, the people; and from the people, the tradition.