INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — A basket is more than just a basket.
For Lee DeCora Francis — a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation and a native studies teacher at Indian Island School — a basket is one of life’s early lessons in patience and perseverance and a cultural tradition to be kept alive.
For Francis’ ancestors, baskets were a form of artistic expression, a source of income or a way to carry items from here to there, she said.
Francis, who explained that she is part Ho-Chunk, a Midwestern tribal nation that includes the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska, and Penobscot, published her first children’s book,”Kunu’s Basket: A Story from Indian Island,” this month.
“The story is actually like a tribute to people in my family,” she said. “In my family history, on both sides, grandparents and great-grandparents survived by making baskets.”
The book follows a Penobscot boy named Kunu who is frustrated and struggles to weave his first basket. Kunu receives help from his Muhmum — a Penobscot word that translates to “grampy” in English.
Muhmum guides Kunu through the process and explains that when he learned to weave baskets as a boy, he failed in his first seven attempts to create the bottom. With Muhmum looking on, Kunu pushes through his frustration while learning about how Muhmum’s grandfather taught him to make baskets the same way.
“Basket making is something that the sons in our family have learned from our fathers and grandfathers going back a long, long way.“ Muhmum says to Kunu in the book. “My grandfather taught me how to do the [basket’s] rim just as I’ll show you.”
“Kunu’s Basket” is part remembrance of Francis’ late-great-uncle and his close relationship with her family, and part reflection of the Penobscot people and one of their important cultural traditions. It’s also a gift to her eldest child, Benji, whom she refers to as Kunu, which means first-born son in the Ho-Chunk language.
“My son’s extremely proud of his book — he calls it his book,” Francis said with a laugh.
Francis’ uncle, Fred Nicola, was close to Francis’ children, who considered him to be like a grandfather. Nicola died about three years ago in his mid-80s, Francis said, but now this book will help keep his memory alive for her children and her people.
“I used to watch them visit and sit side by side, and I just loved the relationship that they had,” Francis said.
Kunu and Muhmum never actually got to make a basket together, according to Francis, who said her son was still too young to make a basket when Nicola passed away. The story of tribal elders patiently teaching Penobscot children to weave a basket, however, is one that many Penobscot families have shared for a long time, she said.
Francis said she made her first basket when she was about 10 years old, picking up techniques as she watched tribal elders work their craft.
Today, Francis isn’t an avid basket maker, but it remains a significant tradition, she said.
“It was always instilled in me that [basket making] is an important part of who we are — to have that generational knowledge passed along,” Francis said.
“I wanted to tell the story and depict our people in a positive, appropriate way,” she said, adding that the book is partly meant to share a piece of Penobscot culture with others without “giving away too much.”
Joseph Bruchac, an author with Abenaki ancestry who is well known in Native American circles, wrote a glowing review of “Kunu’s Basket” — a gesture that Francis said thrilled her.
“It’s not just about the enduring nature of traditional crafts; it also demonstrates the values of patience, family and perseverance,” Bruchac wrote. “It is the sort of book I’d like to see in the hands of every New England grandparent, in the holdings of every public library.”
Artist Susan Drucker illustrated the book, modeling the characters after Francis’ family members. Francis, her husband, her younger son and other family members, including the cat, also make appearances in the book.
Drucker of Bowdoinham has worked as a staff and freelance illustrator at several magazines and newspapers. Her artwork has been displayed at galleries throughout Maine. More of her work may be found at www.susandrucker.mosaicglobe.com.
Asked why she chose to write a children’s book, Francis said it’s because children are her life. When she refers to her “kids,” she’s not just talking about her sons, she’s talking about all the children in the Indian Island community she has taught over the years.
More children’s books could be coming, Francis said, adding that she has other ideas in the pipeline.
“All the stories I have mapped out are relative to my people — not just the Penobscot people or Ho-Chunk people, some of them are more about Native people,” she said. “Some of them are very specific to [Indian Island] because it’s where I grew up and it’s my homeland and it’s the place I’m most familiar with.”
Now that she has written a story featuring one son, she said, it’s likely that one of her future books will star her youngest.
She said “Kunu’s Basket” and the stories that might follow are meant to represent native people to a wider audience in an appropriate way. This book is for the tribal community, Francis said.
“I don’t really consider this my story,” Francis said. “It might be based on my family and its history, but everybody here shares similar stories.”
“I’m very passionate about who I am. I’m passionate about who our people are, our homeland, our history. Everything about us is extremely important to me.”