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Historical Basketry in Northern Maine
by Bernard Ten Bears
Basketry is a hard study here in the place where I grew up. It seems that the tradition was not only handed down by Native Americans to Native Americans but also from Native Americans to the Settlers. Sadly, there is little to show from the pre-contact times of Native American Basketry from Northern Maine. The soil in Aroostook is very acidic and biological artifacts (i.e. bone, shell, wood) did not keep very well in the soil record. The very oldest baskets that are preserved here are from the early 1800's on down.
Tradition did allow for some post contact baskets to be kept and they are curated very nicely in the museums of the southern part of the state, such as the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, and the Maine State Museum. I have a private collection of baskets that I have been gathering over the last 20 years or so, mostly pack baskets and fishing creels, all made of black ash splint. The colloquial name of black ash is "brown ash". Here, if you spoke of a black ash tree people would just look at you like you may have two heads...
As with all things in a place where people live close to the land, the finest work baskets were used and used, until they were all worn out. It makes it hard to come up with examples that are museum quality.
In my hunt over the years I came across some wonderfully made antique baskets and some modern baskets, woven of brown ash of course, I have no bamboo splint baskets; I only like the real thing. The ash for these baskets was cut from the woods, peeled, pounded into strips, gauged, cut, plained, soaked and then woven into the works of art that you see. Some are of higher quality than others.
Because the ash allows air to flow through, they are wonderful gathering baskets, for fiddleheads, potatoes and any other food. They can be washed with a garden hose, if hung to dry or set in the sun so that they don't mildew. Ash is so versatile. If you got alot of dirt on it, you could even scrub it with soap and water, it wouldn't hurt it a bit.
The best way to keep a working basket is to put nothing on it at all. Varnish is death to a working basket, as is stain. It makes the splints brittle. Various oils, such as linseed, tung oil and mineral oil are used on the splints to preserve them, but I find that these only attract dirt and makes the baskets sticky.
A friend of mine, an expert on basketry told me that in Maine and in the Eastern U.S., it is very hard to determine what tribe to attribute to what basket. Native Americans and late comers borrowed techniques from each other to the point where there are various attributes of multiple techniques of weaving when it comes to identification of source. This is not hard to understand. When something works good or looks good, others want to mimic what is good.
There are several Native American tribes here in Maine but one legend, having various sources and outcomes, tells of a creator, who shoots an arrow into an ash tree. When the tree shatters into splinters, they become the people who inhabit this wonderful place that I grew up in. I do love Northern Maine. I do love everyone's legends and beliefs. It is a beautiful place and full of wonderful and wise people.
My goal was to collect nice baskets, hoping that they would gain value. This is not the only object anymore. I love to show people these wonderful baskets, tell the stories that go with them, hear what people know about them and have them tell their stories to me. It's a great hobby. Someday, when I am brave enough, I have several invites from master basket makers that I have become friends with, to go visit, and make a basket with them. How cool is that?
I find that the collecting/antiques world has gone after the baskets that show artistry, such as the "fancy" baskets woven of fine splint and sweetgrass and sold to the tourists here from the 1920's forward. They are detailed and beautiful, but my eye is always on beautiful things that are indeed usable. Of course, there is no way that I could ever use all these packs and creels. If I want to, and am careful, I can use them and they will be no worse for wear and no less valuable (especially to me). These are a few of my thoughts, certainly open to questions and correction. I hope you take time to look at the pictures. These baskets have some details that are unbelievable. If you enjoy useful things of beauty, you will enjoy looking at them.
Bernard Ten Bears
Bernard Ten Bears is the person who sparked my interest in baskets. Look around at yard sales and antique shops, there are still a lot out there. Thank you, Bernard Ten Bears, for this great article.
Pax Domini Sit Semper Vobiscum,
Mike, Oscar, Hotel.....out.