Booklet on basket making fulfills elder’s mission

Posted Sept. 01, 2008, at 8 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:20 a.m.

PLEASANT POINT, Maine — Joseph “Cozy” Nicholas called it “Baskets of the Dawnland People,” and now his dream of a booklet about the history of basket making has come to fruition thanks to his grand-daughter.

Nicholas, who died this year after a long battle with cancer, needed help and turned to his granddaughter Stephanie Francis.

She began helping her grandfather more than a year ago, and state tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah, who is also a Passamaquoddy historian, also stepped forward.

Francis said during a recent interview that she felt good about helping her grandfather. She noted that Nicholas’ mother, grandmother and great-grandmothers were basket makers.

“He used to paddle the canoe and take them to St. Andrews, [New Brunswick] to sell baskets,” she said. “It was loaded up so much that the clearance in the water was just a few inches [from the top of the canoe]. He was supporting them by taking them, and now I feel I am supporting him by helping.”

Francis said she and Soctomah presented Nicholas with a rough draft shortly before his death.

“He couldn’t talk at the time. He opened his eyes and looked at it and got a little smile on his face knowing that was going to continue on,” Soctomah said in a recent interview. “So I think it is real important that his grandchildren carry on some of the work that he did. He has some big shoes to fill. It will take the whole tribe to carry on some of the things that he has done.”

Nicholas had written about basket making before.

“He followed up from a previous publication that he did in the early 1970s,” Soctomah said. “But what he told me he wanted to do was mix the old with the new to show that it is a living culture, a living tradition and a living art.”

Basket making is one of the oldest and finest of the Indian crafts. “Each tribe of the Northeast has a preferred pattern or design which, like their language, distinguishes them from other tribes,” Nicholas wrote in the booklet.

The booklet showcases the work of not only the Passamaquoddy, but also the Penobscot, Micmac and Maliseet tribes.

For years, the sole income for numerous tribal members was making baskets to sell.

But at one point in the tribes’ history, few Indians were making baskets and for a time it appeared the art might fade away.

But now there are hundreds of basket makers following in the tradition of their ancestors, Nicholas wrote.

The tribes are doing much to continue the tradition. Several years ago, the bilingual program at the Indian Township School at Peter Dana Point established a class on basket making as part of its curriculum.

The material for the baskets is obtained from nearby forests and marshes, and all construction is done by hand. Materials used include ash and birch bark. The book is a tutorial on how the brown ash is harvested, pounded, then peeled. The basket makers then use a gauge to cut the strips to the widths they need.

The booklet has plenty of pictures of basket makers from the early 1900s to the present. It deals with all of the baskets, from the practical backpack and fish-scale baskets to fancy baskets that are considered works of art.

There is a section on sweet grass, how it is harvested and how it is used in the process. “Mitchell Francis, at the age of 96, was one of the last men among the Passamaquoddy to occupy himself exclusively with gathering sweetgrass and did so until his death,” the booklet said.

In August, Nicholas, who had died weeks earlier, was honored for his contribution to the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s culture at its Indian Days celebration.

Nicholas and Mary Neptune Moore, who died earlier, were responsible for reintroducing the music and dance of the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

The booklet is dedicated to Nicholas and is on sale at area stores, at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor and the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance in Old Town. Printing was limited to 1,000 copies.

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