Maine Basketry

Activities to Support Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture

“Glooskap came first of all into this country into the land of the Wabanaki, next to sunrise. There were no Indians here then And in this way, he made man: He took his bow and arrows and shot at trees, the basket-trees, the Ash. Then Indians came out of the bark of the Ash-trees.”

—Passamaquoddy creation legend translated by Molly Sepsis and published in Algonquin Legends by Charles G. Leland in 1884.

ash basketRecent Maine legislation, sponsored by Penobscot Representative Donna Loring and signed into law by Governor Angus King, requires that Maine Native American history and culture be taught in all Maine elementary and secondary schools. Toward this end, a seven-member commission will be working with the Maine Department of Education to incorporate Maine Native American history and culture into the State of Maine Learning Results.

In support of this legislation, the Hudson Museum has created two on-line activities. The first, a bookmark activity, offers students a hands-on opportunity to learn about Wabanaki basketry. The second presents instructions on how to make and play waltes, a traditional Northeastern Native American bowl game played by the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq.

Maine Basketry

Wabanaki Basketmaking

The materials used for Wabanaki basketmaking are brown ash and sweetgrass. Brown ash, Fraxinus nigra, commonly grows in swampy areas and along the banks of streams and brooks. Traditionally, men harvest and pound brown ash logs. Logs selected for basketmaking are straight, 8 to 10 feet in length, 6 to 12 inches in diameter and weigh over 100 pounds. To produce splints for basketmaking, the entire log is pounded with the back of an ax or a sledge. The pounding causes the wood to separate along its annual ring growth, producing raw material that is fashioned into splints that may be used to weave work baskets, such as pack and potato baskets, or with additional preparation may be used in making more delicate fancy baskets.

Sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata, a fragrant, salt marsh grass, is also used in Wabanaki basketmaking. The grass is picked, gathered and then hung to dry. Special wooden combs are used to clean the chaff from the grass. Before it is used, it is soaked in water to make it soft and pliable. The grass can then be woven into a basket a few strands at a time or braided, then woven.


During the Civil War, brown ash splints were often dyed with indigo, Prussian blue or chromium yellow. Other colors were made from berries, tree bark and roots. Following the Civil War, basketmakers began to use pre-packaged aniline dyes to color basket splints. As with fashions, popular colors changed over time. During the Victorian era, basketmakers used dull, muted colors including olive green and drab browns. Color common in the 1920s included bright blues, greens and reds. In the 1930s “Roman” colored baskets—baskets with splints dyed in rainbow hues including red, green, blue, orange, purple and teal—were popular.


Wabanaki basketmakers used tools handed down to them from elder family members. These include blocks, used to create uniform-sized baskets; gauges to cut splints into uniform widths ranging from 1/16 inch to 1/2 inch; crooked knives, a one-handed draw-knife to shape the thick rim bands and handles on work baskets; and splitters and scrapers used to thin the ash splints.


Wabanaki baskets were designed for practical purposes and early forms included pack baskets, gathering baskets and fishing traps. These forms were readily adopted by Anglo-Americans for use in the home, the fields and woods, and Indian peddlers commonly sold baskets door-to-door throughout the state. In the early 19th century, baskets were woven free-form and the splints dyed with natural plant materials. Toward the end of the 19th century, tools were developed to ensure uniform basket shapes and sizes, replicating trends in America resulting from the Industrial Revolution.

By the late 1800s Maine, especially its inland lakes and the coast, became a popular summer vacation spot. Traditionally, Wabanaki peoples migrated to these regions to fish and hunt during the summer and they quickly became adept entrepreneurs, selling souvenir merchandise such as birchbark crafts, decorated paddles, toy bows and arrows, root clubs and baskets to the Victorian-era visitors. Basketmakers sold their own work or that of family members, using the profits to support themselves during the winter months.

Wabanaki basketmakers made baskets in a variety of shapes and designs to appear to the tastes of their customers. Many of these forms replicated common Victorian household items. One of the most popular forms was the sewing flat, a small basket (6 to 12 inches in diameter) which typically held buttons, thread and embroidery floss. Other popular forms were button baskets, comb baskets, tatting baskets and knitting baskets. Many baskets were used for decorative purposes. These forms tended to be more intricate with elaborate curlwork. Fans, napkin rings, trays and stationery boxes were all produced by the Wabanaki basketmakers.

In the 1920s imported cord from Hong Kong began to replace hand-braided sweetgrass, allowing basketmakers to increase basket production. As World War I, the Depression and World War II came, Maine tourism declined precipitously, the sales of baskets at the summer resorts ended. Shops continued to sell baskets and souvenir merchandise on Wabanaki reservations. Mass produced plastic items began replacing basket forms in the 1960s. Fewer markets for baskets, other employment opportunities for Wabanaki peoples and difficulty in finding brown ash and sweetgrass resulted in a major decline in this indigenous tradition.

By the 1990s, this tradition was in serious decline with only a handful of basketmakers practicing this artform. In 1992, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance was formed to preserve and assist in all aspects of basketmaking including the gathering and preparation of materials, teaching of the tradition and marketing baskets. Today, there are over 75 Wabanaki basketmakers who carry on this tradition that is intricately linked to their culture.

For educational resources that support the teaching of Wabanaki History and Culture, please visit the Hudson Museum Teacher Resources page.