For centuries the Wabanaki people have passed on their cultural heritage through their basketry. Before recorded
history, woodsplint and birchbark baskets were made for utilitarian use and trade purposes. Splint baskets made of
brown ash and sweetgrass from saltwater marshes in Maine eventually became a means of economic and cultural
survival, particularly in the nineteenth century, right through the turn of the century of the Victorian era. This was a
time of great deprivation for the Wabanaki people, living on reservations, with limited land to hunt and fish and
becoming more dependent upon the European economy and trade goods to feed their families. Economic survival
prompted the creative production of fancy baskets for sale to local and tourist markets.
Highly adaptable, creative and mobile as a culture, Passamaquoddy weavers began to market and sell “fancy baskets” to
appeal to the collectors and Victorian tourist trade that began to flourish at the turn of the century along coastal
waters. Many basketmakers traveled to coastal areas in the summer and set up rough camps just outside the seaside
resorts such as Bar Harbor and Poland Springs, Maine where affluent Victorians began to take up summer residence.
This summer trade market began to decline by the 1930’s and gradually the economy in basketmaking was replaced by
other employment sources. Sales to summer tourists on the reservations and local markets continued on a smaller
scale, but by 1990 the basketmaking tradition was practiced by very few weavers. The labor intensive work of making
baskets, along with low prices consumers would pay did not attract many younger people in the tribes to learn or
practice the art as a livelihood.
The value and recognition of Passamaquoddy basketmaking as a high quality
traditional art has risen over the last 20 years. In 1992, my mother, Mary Mitchell Gabriel
was the first Passamaquoddy basketmaker to be honored by the
State of Maine Arts Commission with an Individual Artist Fellowship award. She was
continuing the heritage of Native American basketmaking when many others were
not involved in the art. This prestigious award in 1992 helped to spur the development
of national recognition of Mary's baskets two years later, and this 1992 award also
helped to inspire the State of Maine Arts Commission to offer a traditional arts program
for Maine Native Americans as a way to encourage others to learn basketmaking or
increase their skills. With her exquisite skills in basketmaking, Mary was an amazing
leader and role-model for others to follow.
In 1994, Mary was the first Passamaquoddy Native American to be honored with a
prestigious National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts for
her extraordinary craftsmanship in basketmaking.
Mary Mitchell Gabriel was the first Passamaquoddy Native American to receive both of these prestigious awards for her
outstanding skill in basketmaking. Since that time, others have followed to receive either state or national recognition
for their basketmaking.
Mary was a founding member of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance which the State of Maine Arts Commission
helped to form in 1993 with the introduction of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program. The State and National
recognition that has resulted since 1992 when Mary initially received the Maine State Arts Commission award has
helped to keep this living tradition alive and well.
As a valued heritage artform, Passamaquoddy baskets now command a price that more closely reflects the time, labor,
natural materials and traditional skills that go into each basket and their inherent beauty attracts buyers from all over
the world. The market continues to expand as Native art and basket enthusiasts continue to purchase baskets for their
Although “fancy” basketmaking began as a means of economic survival to suit the Victorian trade market, it has evolved
to become a nationally recognized collectible art form. Passamaquoddy basketweavers today continue to carry on this
traditional art to express their living culture in much the same way as their ancestors before them.
Visit these websites for additional reading materials on the history of Wabanaki basketmaking:
Deborah Gabriel Brooks
|Maine Indian Baskets
Passamaquoddy Native American Brown Ash Splint Basketry
By Passamaquoddy Weaver, Deborah Gabriel Brooks
Maine Indian Passamaquoddy Basketmaking
Deborah Brooks, Passamaquoddy Weaver
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