CHAPTER 3: Wabanaki Baskets

Sarah Sockbeson, Penobscot Ash Basket, 2011. Brown ash, sweet grass, antler, 5 1/4 in. x 6 1/8 in. (13.34 cm x 15.56 cm). Colby College Museum of Art. Museum purchase from the Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2011.099. Neptune, M. (2019). wewenikan…the beauty we carry. Colby College Museum of Art.

who are the Wabanaki

The four federally-recognized Native American tribes in Maine are the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy, known collectively as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland.” Each community maintains its own tribal government, community schools, cultural center and manages its respective lands and natural resources. Although most of Maine’s Native Americans belong to one of these four tribes and reside on tribal lands, there are others living in towns and cities across the State. This chapter is not intended as any expert statement on Wabanaki culture; and I highly recomend that you visit the Maine Department of Education website or Abbe Museum website for multiple reliable resources to learn more.

About the baskets

It was only recently that I became acquainted with the art of Wabanaki basketry when the Colby College Museum of Arts in 2019 hosted an exhibit titled, Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry, guest curated by Jennifer Neptune. This was an exhibition of contemporary art of the First Nations people of what is now Maine and Maritime Canada. The photographs on this website come from the book on this exhibition. Along with other exquisite works of art, the displays of the baskets were breathtaking. Beyond their obvious beauty and craftsmanship, these baskets have a legacy that infuse layers of meaning to their symbolic importance. I have chosen to feature Wabanaki baskets, because they are an art form that reflects a sense of place more than any other. Learning about these baskets beyond this brief summary is a journey worth taking.

Baskets are an inseparable part of the culture and traditions of the Wabanaki tribes. Basket making is a skill that has been passed from weaver to weaver, over thousands of years. The artistry in these baskets is in the weaving, and many types of weaves are passed from generation to generation, specific to individual families. The shapes of the baskets vary, but the weaves are often inspired by tradition and the past.

For Wabanaki basket artists, basket making is a spiritual process. The process begins with a ceremony of gratitude to the plants that are collected. The Wabanaki have followed sustainable practices that ensure that their childrens’ children will be able to use this same material in the future. Black ash is a hard but flexible wood that can be coaxed, bent and twirled into a basket. Jennifer Neptune, a Penobscot basket maker from Maine’s Indian Island who has been creating intricate baskets for 30 years, explains: “I’ve tried different trees. There’s nothing that can replace black ash.” It is even part of the Penobscot people’s creation story.

Sweetgrass, a native plant found in marshes and wetland areas, is another staple in basketry. Its name comes from the sweet aroma that lingers with the dried and braided grasses. This natural material is perfect for braiding. Some baskets use the sweetgrass braids as added decoration, some interweave it, and some baskets are made solely from this material. Some weavers can braid it so quickly that the movement of their fingers is barely visible.

There are several steps involved in the preparation of the ash tree. Finding the right tree that meets certain criteria is a first step and after a spiritual thanking of the tree, it is cut and brought home. The tree is first cut into sections, and the bark is removed. The basket maker then pounds the end of the logs to split the wood along the tree rings. Each ring is then sliced into long, thin strips or splints of various thicknesses. Once the splints are soaked and sanded, they are woven into a basket. While weaving and creating these baskets, groups of basketmakers work together and tell stories to pass on traditional knowledge to the newer generations. These baskets had utilitarian uses as well as being decorative with whimsical shapes, intricate weaving patterns, or multiple colors that make them a visual delight.

Niskapisuwin (Geo Soctomah Neptune), Apikcilu Binds the Sun, 2018. Brown ash, sweetgrass, gold-plated glass beads, 16 ½ x 9 x 9 in. (41.9 x 22.9 x 22.9 cm)
Collection of the artist.
  • Neptune, M. (2019). wewenikan…the beauty we carry. Colby College Museum of Art.
  • Historically, baskets were a desired commodity and so were an essential way for the Wabanaki to earn a living outside of non-Native towns and cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. In the late 1800’s, the Wabanaki would set up encampments near coastal hotels and resorts to sell their baskets and other forms of art. Even though these resorts significantly contributed to their economic survival, the new inhabitants of Maine further displaced the Wabanaki from their traditional villages and seasonal hunting and fishing grounds.

    The 1930s through the 1980s were hard times for basket makers. Cheap, largely machine-made baskets began to flood the market. The 1990s brought a resurgence of basket making in Wabanaki communities. In Maine, baskets gained acceptance as a legitimate art form among art collectors, gallery owners, museums, and state and federal arts agencies. This resurgence was due to the hard work of the weavers who kept this tradition alive and their decision to unite—the weavers formed the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance (MIBA) in 1993. MIBA has emerged as an international success story in traditional arts preservation by offering community workshops and apprenticeship programs, as well as sales opportunities for its members.

    From the significance of the ash tree as part of the creation story, to the sustainable practices to preserve the natural materials used, it is plain to see how Wabanaki baskets are deeply connected to a sense of place. It is rare today to see such craftsmanship and pride in the creation of every day objects.

    Inspirational artist

    Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Neptune.

    Jennifer Sapiel Neptune (Penobscot)

    “I’m kind of doing anthropology in reverse, giving artifacts back to the community as reproductions, for the future.”

    Jennifer Neptune

    Jennifer Sapiel Neptune, a member of the Penobscot Nation, has a degree in anthropology and a concentration in Native Studies from the University of Maine in Orono. Jennifer has worked for the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance for over twenty years, eight of which included managing the MIBA Gallery in Old Town, Maine. She works on preserving ash and sweetgrass basketry traditions and helping other artists sell and market their work. Most recently, she is collaborating with the University of Maine Sustainability Solutions Initiative to help prepare for the eventual arrival of the Emerald Ash Borer in Maine. She enjoys being in the woods and on the water and is a Registered Maine Guide. Jennifer’s ancestors have lived on Indian Island, the Penobscot Nation’s reservation, for generations. She remembers her grandmother working there to dye ash splints for traditional ash and sweetgrass baskets. Beyond her intricate bead work and skill, it is the stories and the experiences that she infuses into her work, linking the past with the present, that make her work so special. Jennifer has been known to bring an important work of art with her on an extensive canoe journey to visit members of the Wabanaki Confederation and important spiritual places as a way to honor her ancestors. I have never heard of an artist that would show such dedication and passion to their artistic vision.

    Photographs courtesy of Jennifer Neptune.

    natural materials art LESSON

    This is a creative problem solving activity that can be done individually or in groups.

    1. Gather natural materials and place a large pile or piles where students can have easy access. This includes things like: sticks, moss, birch bark, twine, leather pieces, moss, leather cord, stones, wood pieces.
    2. Students must create something that will be able to hold or carry something using only natural materials. 
    3. Have students decide what they want their piece to hold before beginning this task.  
    4. As long as the students show great effort in this project, it is acceptable if their solution didn’t succeed.

    Engage your students with the following questions designed to inspire some thoughtful discussions as students are working.

    Some types of art historically undertaken by women – such as textile work – are often undervalued and not considered “real art”. This has also been true for Native American cultures whose art is often labeled “folk art,” “primitive art,” or “crafts.” What is your opinion on this? Do you think that these works should be considered “real art” or not?  What are some similarities and some differences between art and crafts?

    Do you think that the Wabanaki people have a unique experience living in Maine? Do you think they have a special or unique relationship with the landscape? If so, explain.

    Community Connection: The emerald ash borer beetle

    Invasion. In Honor of Wabanaki Baskets by Jessica Hamilton-Jones, encaustic on board (2021).

    Now it is all hands on deck as the black ash trees face the most significant threat yet: the invasive emerald ash borer beetle. Emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire (EAB), is an exotic beetle discovered in southeastern Michigan in 2002. The adult beetles nibble on ash foliage causing minor damage. The larvae, however, feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients. Since the ash borer’s discovery, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance has organized regional symposia involving entomologists and state officials to figure out how to store or stockpile the ash, fight the beetle, and educate the public. Wabanaki citizens, forest service employees, policymakers, and professionals have formed a black ash task force to prepare for the EAB’s arrival, including a ban on importation of firewood from out of state.

    Have a discussion with your students about awareness. How could someone get an important message out to the public? Have your students design flyers, brochures, posters or create a public service announcement video. I created a collage with encaustic to display my concern over the invasion of the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle. In my class, my students researched public service announcements and some created a video. One way to get this work into your community is through local youth art month exhibitions partnering with your local library, museum or other nonprofit organization.