Richard Silliboy, a member of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, was the youngest of eight children growing up in a basket-making Micmac family in Littleton.
“I’m the only one left in the family,” said Silliboy, 62, former president of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. He wishes he had rediscovered the roots of his tribal culture much earlier in life.
“I am sorry it took me two-thirds of my life to discover that. I didn’t see the importance. I tried to ignore it. … When I was a child, if there was anything I didn’t want to do, it was make baskets. I hated being out in the cold, working on wood,” he said.
That all changed when he reached adulthood.
“I got serious about it. I saw basket-making as a dying art amongst our people,” he said. He began to make his own baskets.
“I loved the spiritual aspect of handling wood; the peace and serenity of making baskets — and the frustrations when the wood doesn’t go the way you want,” he said.
Basket-making became a path to relearn the wisdom of his own tribal culture.
“The more I learned, the more upset I got about the plight of the native people — the history of what they had to live through — the racism, the prejudice, the poverty, especially around here,” he said.
“Once I started learning who I was and accepting that I was a native American, it got more interesting — and more difficult — because it was hard to find out more about my ancestry. There were many stories my mother and grandmother would tell. I didn’t listen. I was 30 years old before I understood anything about oral history among native people. If you don’t get it the first time, you don’t get another chance,” he said.
Silliboy will be sharing his heritage during a four-day event, “Wabanaki Perspectives and Human Awareness,” to be held Oct. 13-16, at the University of Maine at Augusta. The event is free and open to the public.
The four tribes in Maine — Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet — collectively called “Wabanaki” or “People of the Dawn Land” — will be represented at the event, whose goal is to generate greater awareness of the depth, beauty and relevancy of the tribal culture in our state.
Participants can select from a mix of daytime and evening programs — art displays, panel discussions, films, specialty foods, such as rabbit, venison, fiddleheads and berries, talking circles, drumming, a bonfire by the lake, discussions of Wabanaki spirituality and the role of Native American veterans, and demonstrations by Wabanaki artists and craftspeople.
At 7 p.m. Oct. 14, Silliboy will be the lead presenter during a panel discussion, “Tribal Identification: The Importance of Knowing One’s Roots,” to be held at Center Auditorium, on the UMA campus. While there, he will show the film, “Invisible.”
“It is focused on the plight of Native American foster children in Maine and the need for such children to be in contact with their own people and culture,” he said.
He noted that the film touches on the history of government schools such as Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, opened by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1930 and run by religious groups. Micmac and Maliseet children were forbidden to utter a word in their own languages.
“The last one closed in the 1960s. These schools were very abusive. They used child labor. A lot of children were sexually assaulted. The history of that is terrible. They tried to take the Indian out of the Indian,” Silliboy said.
As a child, he recalled hearing stories about these abuses from tribal members who traveled from Nova Scotia and stopped at his mother’s house in Littleton.
“I heard all these horror stories. It turned me against religion — priests, nuns, religion and God. I didn’t get the difference between organized religion and the understanding I have now of my Creator. Today, I have respect for all religions. I follow my Native American spirituality,” he said.
He summed up his view.
“For us, there is life in all things — spirit in all things. The quickest way I can define it is this: A religious man is sitting in church thinking about fishing, and a spiritual man is sitting out in the lake — fishing — thinking about the Creator.”
Jim Sappier, current council member and former chief of the Penobscot Nation, called the spirit of interconnectedness Silliboy referred to as, “GheChe’Nawais” or “All That Is.”
“We were created from all that is,” he said.
During opening events, which start at 7 p.m. Oct. 13, in Jewett Auditorium, tribal elders will share views on Native American spirituality. The film, “Wabanaki: A New Dawn,” will be shown.
Informative cultural events about Wabanaki culture are greatly needed, Sappier noted.
“People only know about Indians from the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and eating turkey. … The history of the U.S. can’t be told without tribes’ active involvement, without the history of the Wabanaki. By not knowing the history, there is a tendency to continue on with certain bigotry and racism,” he said.
The cultural event will be shared not only with UMA students and the general public, but also with more than 50 Wabanaki seventh-grade students who will converge on the UMA campus Oct. 15, and take part in storytelling, drumming and other activities.
Weaving the future
Silliboy grew up in poverty in Littleton.
“My family were basketmakers. They did ‘stoop labor’ — work that broke your back, like hand-picking potatoes, blueberries,” he said. He watched and worked with his mother, Mary Ann Silliboy, who earned a meager livelihood by making prodigious amounts of potato baskets from native Maine brown ash wood.
“She supplied a lot of the farmers and hardware stores for many years with ash baskets.
She could make dozens of baskets at a time with the help of my older siblings. I used to hold the flashlight when the boys were pounding the [ash] wood at night,” he said, of a step in preparing wooden strips for weaving.
“They did it at night, because they had worked out for the farmers during the day. It took two people. One to hold the stick and the other to swing the ax.
“Anything that mother made for potato baskets went out to the field. She never made one for someone’s home for the beauty and spiritual aspect of the basket. The baskets I sold later for $95 apiece, she sold for 50 cents,” he said.
Silliboy’s basket-making has slowed now, he said, but he still takes on apprentices. Currently, he is teaching the art to a young, local apprentice.
“I do it the traditional way, wrapping everything with brown ash splints instead of using nails,” he said.
Basket-making epitomizes tribal culture, weaving beauty and practicality into a coherent whole.
During “Wabanaki Perspectives,” award-winning Passamaquoddy basketmaker Molly Neptune Parker will demonstrate her basket-making skills.
“I make a little bit of everything — fancy baskets made out of brown ash and sweet grass. They can be used for many purposes — sewing baskets, brush holders, handbags,” said Parker, who is current president of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.
Like Silliboy, she learned basket-making at her mother’s knee.
“I inherited all her [basket] forms and all her tools of basket-making when she passed a few years ago, just shy of age 90,” Parker said of her mother, Irene Newell Dana. “She learned it from her mom. It’s been in the family for hundreds of years.”
Native basket-making has a cherished past and a promising future, she believes.
“We have quite a few of the younger people picking up the craft now. When the Basketmakers Alliance formed years ago, people started to see that we can promote our baskets through them,” she said.
Theresa Secord of Waterville, a fourth generation basketmaker and executive director of the alliance, will discuss “Basket-making: A Tribute to the Revival of Cultural Arts and Pride,” at 12:30 p.m. Oct. 15, at the Fireplace Lounge, Randall Center, UMA campus.
Secord supports Parker’s optimism.
“When we formed the organization in 1993, there were only 50 basketmakers statewide. The average age was 63. We put in a bunch of teaching programs and marketing work. Today, the average age of [Maine tribal] basketmakers is at 40, with about 125 basketmakers,” she said.
“It is just like carrying on what my mother used to do,” Parker said, of her basket work. “No matter where I’ve lived with my children, I told them to be proud of who they are and never to forget that what I do is what our people believed.”
For an event schedule, visit uma.edu/wabankiperspectives.html or call the informational hotline, 621-3019.
Lynn Ascrizzi is a poet, freelance writer and gardener who lives in Freedom.