Wabanaki Basket Weaving
Gloosekap came first of all into this country, into the land of the Wabanaki, next to the sunrise. There were no Indians here then. And in this way he made men: 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.
— Wabanaki story told by Molly Sepsis, first published in Algonquin Legends by Charles G. Leland, as quoted in Kathleen Mundell, North by Northeast: Wabanaki, Akwesasne Mohawk, and Tuscarora Traditional Arts (Gardiner, ME: Tillbury House Publishers, 2008).
Baskets are a fundamental part of the culture and traditions of the Wabanaki, who believe that basket making is a skill that has been passed from weaver to weaver, generation to generation, uninterrupted for thousands of years.
The Wabanaki made splint baskets of specific shapes and sizes to gather and prepare food and trap fish, both before and after European contact. Post-contact, many tribal people used basket making as a way to make a living outside of non-native towns and cities.
Wabanaki baskets are made primarily from long, thin strips of wood, or splints, of the brown ash tree. Known as the “basket tree,” the brown ash is considered sacred to many of the native peoples of the northeastern United States and Canada. The wood of the ash tree is also both strong and flexible, making it particularly well suited for weaving durable containers.
Men would harvest and pound the ash while women would strip the ash and split it into the correct thickness—fine ash for fancy baskets and thicker ash for work-baskets. Although traditionally women wove baskets, today both men and women engage in all aspects of basket weaving.
Wabanaki baskets are also made from sweetgrass, a type of sweet-smelling grass found throughout the Eastern woodlands. It is collected from saltwater marshes, dried, and often braided.
The tradition of Wabanaki basket weaving is now threatened by an invasive beetle species from eastern Asia, the emerald ash borer. First discovered in Michigan in 2002, it has spread rapidly, mainly by the movement of infected firewood. The beetle kills all species of ash, threatening the basketry traditions of several Great Lakes area tribes as well as the Haudenosaunee, Abenaki, and Wabanaki. The Wabanaki are working with the government to find ways to protect the brown ash tree. They are also preserving seeds and archiving video and documentation of the basket making process so that in the event of total destruction, the brown ash can be replanted one day, so future generations can be taught the basket-weaving skills of their ancestors.
The Hood Museum of Art exhibition catalogue Spirit of the Basket Tree: Wabanaki Ash Splint Baskets from Maine features many of the baskets included in this resource, as well as a full essay on the history of Wabanaki basket weaving by Penobscot basket weaver Jennifer Neptune.