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Basket makers wary of threat to ash on eve of sale

By Jessica Bloch, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — As visitors tour the hallways and lobbies of the Collins Center for the Arts on Saturday during the 2009 Maine Indian Basketmakers Sale and Demonstration, they’ll have a chance to see demonstrations and purchase items of what may be the oldest art form in Maine.

Yet that art form — brown-ash basketry practiced for centuries by Maine’s Indian tribes — may be endangered in the next few decades.

The brown ash trees that Maine basket makers traditionally have used for their creations is expected to be under attack soon from the emerald ash borer, an invasive species that lives under the bark of the ash tree.

Although it has not yet been detected in New England, the borer has decimated trees in 12 Midwestern and mid-Atlantic states and is now in southern Quebec, posing a threat not only to the environment but also to a way of life for Indian artisans.

Saturday’s annual event will feature around 30 Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot basket makers selling ash split and sweet grass baskets. Work baskets such as creels, pack and potato baskets will be for sale alongside fancy baskets ranging in shape from strawberries and blueberries to curly bowls.

There also will be quill jewelry, wood carvings and birch bark creations. Demonstrations include moose-calling, traditional songs and drumming.

The day’s events go from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The sale and demonstrations are free and open to the public.

The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, an organization that along with the University of Maine helps coordinate the basket sale and demonstration day, has been concerned about the emerald ash borer for at least five years, said Theresa Secord, the alliance’s executive director. Secord said basket makers in Michigan have re-ported hundreds of millions of dead ash trees since the pest invaded, which is believed to be 2002.

There are around 400 million ash trees and saplings in Maine, she said.

“[The alliance’s] work has focused on increasing the numbers of basket makers and encouraging teaching and markets for the next generation,” said Secord, who is a Penobscot basket maker herself. “We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles. But if we lose the ash resource, there’s not going to be a lot we can do about this.”

According to information from Michigan State University, the emerald ash borer, named for the deep green color of the adults, is at its most dangerous to the ash tree in the larval stage, when it bores through the area behind the bark and the wood where nutrient levels are high. It then feeds under the bark for several weeks.

The borer is hard to detect because it lives under the bark, Secord said, and also because it typically first attacks the tops of trees, which aren’t as easily seen by observers.

The borer is believed to spread through firewood brought from other states.

Secord said the state has been on top of the emerald ash borer issue since it started to make its way east. This summer Maine became the first state in the country to use ground wasps, whose young feed on similar wood-boring beetles, in the fight against invasive pests.

The ash’s pliability is what makes the tree so well-suited for baskets. Indian artisans haven’t found anything similar that suits their needs, Secord said. In addition to the suitability of the tree for baskets, Secord said the tribal people have a cultural and spiritual tie to the ash tree.

“It’s said that the Indian people actually came from the ash, so it’s a long, ancient connection to the tree,” she said.

Aside from her position with the basket makers alliance, the potential loss of ash trees is an issue that hits Secord personally as she’s teaching her 14-year-old niece how to weave baskets.

“I’m really concerned for her, to be able to be a tribal artisan and practice this aspect of her culture,” Secord said. “It’s not at all a sure thing that she’s going to be able to do this.”



Saturday schedule at Indian basket event

The 2009 Maine Indian Basketmakers Sale and Demonstration is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at Collins Center for the Arts on the University of Maine campus in Orono.

9:30 a.m. — Welcome from Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis and traditional greeting songs from Watie Akins, Penobscot.

10-11:30 a.m. — Book signing by Kathleen Mundell, author of “North by Northeast: Wabanaki, Akwesasne Mohawk, and Tuscarora Traditional Arts.”

10 a.m. — Brown ash pounding and work basket demonstration by Eldon Hanning, Micmac.

10:30 a.m. — Fancy basket demonstration by basket maker Barbara Francis, Penobscot.

11 a.m. — Penobscot beadworking demonstration by Jennifer Sapiel Neptune, Penobscot.

11:30 a.m. — Moose calling demonstration by Barry Dana, Penobscot.

11 a.m.-1 p.m. — Traditional foods, featuring hull corn soup, fry bread and blueberry desserts. Food sales benefit the Penobscot Nation Boys and Girls Club.

Noon — Root club demonstration by Stan Neptune, Penobscot Master Carver.

1 p.m. — Children’s storytime by Donald Soctomah, author of “Remember Me: Tomah Joseph’s Gift to Franklin Roosevelt.”

1 p.m. — Traditional Passamaquoddy medicine with Fredda Paul.

2-4 p.m. — Burnurwurbskek Singers with drumming, singing and dancing.

4 p.m. — Drawing for the Hudson Museum Friends Maine Indian Basket Raffle, featuring basket by National Heritage Fellow Award winner Clara Keezer. Raffle tickets are $5 each.

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