Wabanaki baskets


Wabanaki basket, ca. 1940

Wabanaki basket, ca. 1940
Item 104964   info
Maine Historical Society

Until around 1990, artists didn't sign their baskets, and the collectors usually didn’t record the names of the artists.

Historically, tourists didn’t view the baskets as artwork, but rather as a memento of a nostalgic encounter with another culture, to recall trips to places like Bar Harbor or Indian Island, or as décor and useful objects in the large summer “cottages” on the coast.

Penobscot button basket by Theresa Lyon Sockalexis, ca. 1934

Penobscot button basket by Theresa Lyon Sockalexis, ca. 1934
Item 23628   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

Penobscot Indian Theresa Camilla Lyon Sockalexis made this button basket, part of a set of sewing baskets that includes a needle case, thimble holder, pin cushion and scissors case in addition to this basket.

She was well known for her fine basketwork.

Fancy porcupine-weave basket, Penobscot, 1862

Fancy porcupine-weave basket, Penobscot, 1862
Item 80715   info
Abbe Museum

Though this porcupine-weave basket has been attributed to Molly Molasses (or Mary Pelagie, 1775-1867), it is not certain that she made it. But, it is known that Molly Molasses sold a variety of Penobscot-made wares around Bangor and Brewer through the first part of the 19th century.

A porcupine weave is made by folding and pinching the splints so that they created spikey points. Molasses was known to have done this to create a visual interest and make the basket appear more fancy.

Mary Pealgie Nicola, also known as Molly Molasses was a Penobscot woman who was born about 1775. Molasses lived until the age of 92 and had a reputation in the Bangor area for fine work. She was painted, photographed and written about in books and local newspapers. Her baskets were considered to be art rather than souvenirs.

Egg Basket, Wabanaki, ca. 1900

Egg Basket, Wabanaki, ca. 1900
Item 80733   info
Abbe Museum

Also known as a melon basket, for its shape, this basket is both decorative and functional.

While the Wabanaki Tribes originally made specialized baskets to gather and prepare food and trap fish during the nineteenth century, when the Wabenaki were making goods to sell their baskets and other goods gained a decorative element. Decoration usually came in the form of fancy weaving patterns, colored splints or unconventional shapes that made the baskets and things nice to look at as well as useful.

Comb basket, Wabanaki, ca. 1900

Comb basket, Wabanaki, ca. 1900
Item 80734   info
Abbe Museum

Visitors to the Wabanaki encampments on Mount Desert Island could purchase baskets in a myriad of shapes, sizes and forms.

Comb baskets or wall pockets would be hung on the wall to hold a Victorian lady's combs or other personal items.

Miniature camp scene, Wabanaki, ca. 1910

Miniature camp scene, Wabanaki, ca. 1910
Item 80750   info
Abbe Museum

Visitors to the Wabanaki encampments on Mount Desert Island could purchase baskets in a myriad of shapes, sizes and forms. Many visitors to the encampments went home with toys or miniatures, everything from dolls to snowshoes.

This little piece, it is a lovely example of Wabanaki artisans creating treasured souvenirs using traditional materials and techniques. It is also interesting because most miniature depictions of wigwams and canoes are made with birch bark, the same material used to make their full-sized equivalents.

Napkin ring, Wabanaki, ca. 1900

Napkin ring, Wabanaki, ca. 1900
Item 80732   info
Abbe Museum

This ash and sweet grass napkin ring is one of the wide variety of household and personal items crafted by Wabanaki artisans around the turn of the century to appeal to Victorian consumers.

There are several steps to harvesting and preparing ash and sweet grass for making into baskets and other items. The ash tree is first cut into sections and the bark is removed. The the end of the logs are pounded into split the wood along the tree rings. Each ring is then sliced into long, thin strips, or splints, of various thicknesses. Once the sprints are soaked and sanded they can be woven into whatever item the weaver desires.

Sweet grass is harvested, optimally before the fist frost and is left to dry in the sun until it is dry and brittle. Before use the weaver soaks the dried sweet grass in warm water until it becomes pliable and then is braided before it is woven into a basket or other item.

Collar box and collars, Passamaquoddy, ca. 1880

Collar box and collars, Passamaquoddy, ca. 1880
Item 80735   info
Abbe Museum

This birch bark box was made to store men's detachable collars, keeping them clean and organized when not being worn. It is an example of Wabanaki artisans crafting items to meet the wishes of Victorian consumers.

Though Native American goods were often created or adapted to modern needs, the craft itself connected the different generations of the tribe through the transfer of skills and appreciation of tradition and also built community amongst the tribes and beyond.

Band box basket, Penobscot, ca. 1850

Band box basket, Penobscot, ca. 1850
Item 80731   info
Abbe Museum

Large covered baskets like this were used to pack hats and other clothing for travel and storage.

While during this time, traditional utility baskets made by Native Americans continued to be popular, "fancy baskets" or baskets with whimsical shapes, intricate weave patterns, or multiple colors became very popular and were made to fit every imaginable need.

Fancy porcupine-weave basket, Penobscot, 1862

Fancy porcupine-weave basket, Penobscot, 1862
Item 80715   info
Abbe Museum

Though this porcupine-weave basket has been attributed to Molly Molasses (or Mary Pelagie, 1775-1867), it is not certain that she made it. But, it is known that Molly Molasses sold a variety of Penobscot-made wares around Bangor and Brewer through the first part of the 19th century.

A porcupine weave is made by folding and pinching the splints so that they created spikey points. Molasses was known to have done this to create a visual interest and make the basket appear more fancy.

Mary Pealgie Nicola, also known as Molly Molasses was a Penobscot woman who was born about 1775. Molasses lived until the age of 92 and had a reputation in the Bangor area for fine work. She was painted, photographed and written about in books and local newspapers. Her baskets were considered to be art rather than souvenirs.

Fred Tomah Katahdin Series basket, Houlton, 2010

Fred Tomah Katahdin Series basket, Houlton, 2010
Item 104956   info
Maine Historical Society

Fred Tomah started making baskets in the 1960s and apprenticed with master Maliseet basketmaker Jim Tomah in 1990. Although he made potato baskets in his youth, he went on to specializes in twill weaving, taking utilitarian baskets into the art realm.

The four corners of the Katahdin series basket represents the four tribes of the Wabanaki-- the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot.

Passamaquoddy basket in the shape of a hat, ca. 1950

Passamaquoddy basket in the shape of a hat, ca. 1950
Item 104967   info
Maine Historical Society

As Native and non-Native cultures interacted, Wabanaki artists created new and exciting designs to meet the tourist market, including glove boxes, sewing accessories, powder dispensers, and wall pockets—sometimes in fanciful shapes like acorns and strawberries.

This basket was created in the shape of a hat, and is a powder dispenser, complete with a puff inside.

Rocky Keezer basket, Perry, 2000

Rocky Keezer basket, Perry, 2000
Item 105012   info
Maine Historical Society

Rocky Keezer, from the Passamaquoddy Tribe, learned to weave from his mother, Clara Neptune Keezer, who in turn learned to weave from her parents and grandparents.

Clara Keezer basket, Perry, 1996

Clara Keezer basket, Perry, 1996
Item 104963   info
Maine Historical Society

Clara Neptune Keezer (1930-2016), from the Passamaquoddy Tribe, learned the art of basketmaking at the age of eight from her mother and grandmother.

As an adult, she kept the art of fancy basketmaking alive during hard economic times. Despite loss of access to markets and resources, Keezer held onto basketmaking traditions, made innovations in designs, and taught basketmaking to many of the younger generations. Clara Keezer was recognized for her artistry and was a 2002 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship.

Clara Keezer basket, Perry, 1996

Clara Keezer basket, Perry, 1996
Item 105013   info
Maine Historical Society

Clara Neptune Keezer (1930-2016), from the Passamaquoddy Tribe, learned the art of basketmaking at the age of eight from her mother and grandmother.

As an adult, she kept the art of fancy basketmaking (small baskets with decorative designs) alive during hard economic times.

Clara Keezer was recognized for her artistry and was a 2002 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship.

Philomene Nelson barrel basket, Indian Island, ca. 1945

Philomene Nelson barrel basket, Indian Island, ca. 1945
Item 104959   info
Maine Historical Society

Although historic baskets aren’t signed, retroactive artist attribution can sometimes be from the form, and because most artists have a "signature style" that defines their work.

The familial basket block, artistic style, and photographic evidence, help attribute this barrel basket to Maliseet artist Philomene Saulis Nelson. Nelson was originally from Tobique, Canada, and moved to Indian Island after marrying Horace Nelson of the Penobscot Nation.

Marie Bibeau Masta needle case, Portland, ca. 1910

Marie Bibeau Masta needle case, Portland, ca. 1910
Item 104968   info
Maine Historical Society

Marie Bibeau Masta, (1887-1983) was Abenaki, from the Odanak Band in Canada. Later in life, she moved to Portland. She was well known for her basketry skills, and made this miniature sweetgrass basket to hold sewing needles.

Marie Bibeau Masta thimble basket, Portland, ca. 1910

Marie Bibeau Masta thimble basket, Portland, ca. 1910
Item 104969   info
Maine Historical Society

Marie Bibeau Masta, (1887-1983) was Abenaki, from the Odanak Band in Canada. Later in life, she moved to Portland. She was well known for her basketry skills, and made this miniature sweetgrass basket to hold a sewing thimble.

Bell-shaped Sewing Basket

Bell-shaped Sewing Basket
Item 14426   info
Abbe Museum

The baskets in Anne Howells collection were made by Native Americans living in the Northeast. The majority are from Wabanaki communities in Maine and eastern Canada, including Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. There are also a few baskets made by Abenaki people from Quebec and Native peoples from southern New England.

This basket style was originally created by Yvonne Robert, Abenaki, of Odanak, Quebec. Although the Abenaki are not a federally recognized tribe in Maine, they have close historical and cultural ties to Maine's Native American communities. Many of the Abenaki who left the Kennebec River valley following the English raid on Norridgewock in 1724 settled in Odanak.

Sewing Basket, ca. 1980

Sewing Basket, ca. 1980
Item 14424   info
Abbe Museum

The baskets in Anne Howells collection were made by Native Americans living in the Northeast. The majority are from Wabanaki communities in Maine and eastern Canada, including Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. There are also a few baskets made by Abenaki people from Quebec and Native peoples from southern New England.

This basket is a style known as the "Abenaki Star." Although the Abenaki are not a federally recognized tribe in Maine, they have close historical and cultural ties to Maine's Native American communities. Many of the Abenaki who left the Kennebec River valley following the English raid on Norridgewock in 1724 settled in Odanak.

This basket was a gift to Anne Molloy Howells from Gaby Pelletier, a basket researcher and author of Abenaki Basketry (National Museums of Canada, 1982).

Jim Tomah carry-all basket, Houlton, 1998

Jim Tomah carry-all basket, Houlton, 1998
Item 104962   info
Maine Historical Society

Walter James “Jim” Tomah (1922-1996), a member of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, was a master basketmaker who specialized in utilitarian baskets. He was a mentor to generations of younger basketmakers.

Jewelry Box

Jewelry Box
Item 14423   info
Abbe Museum

This basket was made by Irene Newell Dana, Passamaquoddy, from Indian Township. It is decorated with braided sweetgrass and dyed ash splints.

The baskets in Anne Howells collection were made by Native Americans living in the Northeast. The majority are from Wabanaki communities in Maine and eastern Canada, including Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. There are also a few baskets made by Abenaki people from Quebec and Native peoples from southern New England.

Trophy Cup Fancy Basket, ca. 1900

Trophy Cup Fancy Basket, ca. 1900
Item 14422   info
Abbe Museum

After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution brought newfound wealth to the nation. Summer resorts such as Bar Harbor boomed and Wabanaki basketmakers found an eager and concentrated market for their wares.

Fancy baskets were invented and Native weavers responded to market demand to create a wide variety of baskets for the tourist trade. These baskets were smaller, more portable and highly decorated. Recognizing the Victorian taste for elaborate decor, basketmakers created fancy baskets decorated with elegant handles, complex twisted weaves, sweetgrass and dyed splints.

Bell-shaped Sewing Basket

Bell-shaped Sewing Basket
Item 14426   info
Abbe Museum

The baskets in Anne Howells collection were made by Native Americans living in the Northeast. The majority are from Wabanaki communities in Maine and eastern Canada, including Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. There are also a few baskets made by Abenaki people from Quebec and Native peoples from southern New England.

This basket style was originally created by Yvonne Robert, Abenaki, of Odanak, Quebec. Although the Abenaki are not a federally recognized tribe in Maine, they have close historical and cultural ties to Maine's Native American communities. Many of the Abenaki who left the Kennebec River valley following the English raid on Norridgewock in 1724 settled in Odanak.

Penobscot glove box, Indian Island, ca. 1890

Penobscot glove box, Indian Island, ca. 1890
Item 23499   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

This Penobscot glove box has an unusual decorative curl treatment, apparently used only in the late 1800s.

The basket was made to hold the elbow- or three-quarter-length gloves fashionable at the time.

Penobscot scissors case by Theresa Lyon Sockalexis, ca. 1934

Penobscot scissors case by Theresa Lyon Sockalexis, ca. 1934
Item 23442   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

Penobscot Indian Theresa Camilla Lyon Sockalexis of Indian Island made fancy baskets, including this scissors case that was part of a sewing set.

She was renowned for her basket work.

Penobscot urchin basket, ca. 1890

Penobscot urchin basket, ca. 1890
Item 23500   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

Based on the sea urchin, this form continues to be made by Penobscot and Passamaquoddy basketmakers.

Penobscot miniature hamper, ca. 1960

Penobscot miniature hamper, ca. 1960
Item 23457   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

This basket with several bands of different color weavers in the middle has carrying handles on the sides and a lid. It was made by a Penobscot Indian.

Penobscot open sewing basket, ca. 1860

Penobscot open sewing basket, ca. 1860
Item 23439   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

This Penobscot open sewing basket is made with an ornamental weave called porcupine curls because of the sharp points created by twisting the weavers or horizontal splints. The technique was developed about 1860.

Penobscot band basket, ca. 1860

Penobscot band basket, ca. 1860
Item 23438   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

This form of basket is referred to as a "band" basket from the brightly colored splints used in the piece.

Cadmium yellow, iron oxide red, Prussian blue and indigo were swabbed onto the exterior surface of the splints only. Such commercially produced pigments were costly and used sparingly.

Band baskets were destined for home use to store hats, clothes or linen, or for use in travel as "suitcases."

Band box basket, Penobscot, ca. 1850

Band box basket, Penobscot, ca. 1850
Item 80731   info
Abbe Museum

Large covered baskets like this were used to pack hats and other clothing for travel and storage.

While during this time, traditional utility baskets made by Native Americans continued to be popular, "fancy baskets" or baskets with whimsical shapes, intricate weave patterns, or multiple colors became very popular and were made to fit every imaginable need.

Thimble basket by Theresa Lyon Sockalexis, Indian Island, ca. 1934

Thimble basket by Theresa Lyon Sockalexis, Indian Island, ca. 1934
Item 23444   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

Part of a set of fancy baskets used for sewing, this thimble basket dates to about 1934.

Theresa Camilla Lyon Sockalexis, a noted Penobscot basketmaker, created this basket, along with a needle case, pin cushion, scissors case and button basket.

Penobscot square band basket, ca. 1880

Penobscot square band basket, ca. 1880
Item 23440   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

A square band basket made by a member of the Penobscot Nation about 1880.

The bands are nearly black, probably from indigo dyes, which can range in color from a light, bright blue to a blue-black depending on the concentration used.

Penobscot pin cushion by Theresa Camilla Lyon Sockalexis, ca. 1934

Penobscot pin cushion by Theresa Camilla Lyon Sockalexis, ca. 1934
Item 23441   info
Hudson Museum, Univ. of Maine

Theresa Camilla Lyon Sockalexis made this pin cushion, part of a set for home use.

She was renowned for her fine basketwork, a tradition carried on by her great grandchildren.

Rent basket, ca. 1910

Rent basket, ca. 1910
Item 80365   info
Friendship Museum

This rare sweet grass basket shaped like a pumpkin was woven by a Penobscot Indian. The Penobscot Indians came to Friendship every summer to gather sweet grass along the shore by the Jameson & Wotton Wharf. At the end of the season, they would give a basket to Walter Wotton as "rent" for allowing them to set up camp for the summer. Over the years Walter Wotton ended up with a substantial collection of these baskets.

Gabriel Frey pack basket purse, Orono, 2019

Gabriel Frey pack basket purse, Orono, 2019
Item 104987   info
Maine Historical Society

A 13th generation Passamaquoddy basket weaver, Gabriel Frey learned to weave from his grandfather, Fred Moore. In 1998, when Moore was diagnosed with emphysema, Frey went to stay with and learn from him at Sipayik. Then 18, Frey learned how to prepare ash and make tools, and pack baskets.

Frey specializes in utility baskets of all sizes, most recently pushing the traditional art form into new realms of functional wearable art pieces, like this purse. Gabriel Frey has won numerous awards, including a 2019 United States Artists fellowship.

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