The spirit of Penobscot basket making works through Pam Cunningham’s hands. It’s there when sitting in the comfort of her kitchen in Hampden, she splits the brown ash into long strips, uses handmade gauges to cut the strips into specific widths ranging from 1/16 to 1-inch widths, and tells stories of how she came to basket making and what it means to her.
“I grew up around basket making,” she said. She was raised on Indian Island. Her mother, Jean Thompson, whose native name is ssipsis (Little Bird), is Penobscot. Thompson, who also grew up on Indian Island, was a social worker who developed Indian leadership programs and school curricula for Indian schoolchildren. Cunningham said her mother fashioned baskets, photo frames and other works of art of birch bark. The current of creativity runs strong in both mother and daughter.
Cunningham, whose Penobscot name is outdusis (Little Pathway), recalls when, as a child, she attended sweet grass braiding parties with her mother.
“I remember crawling under the table and listening to [the women] talking,” she said. “But I didn’t pay attention to basket making until I was in my 20s.”
Sweetgrass is a basic element in the art and decoration of Penobscot basket making.
The basket making came home to Cunningham as a result of her work as a volunteer for the Penobscot Nation Hospice. As she went about her duties, she discovered that the topic of basket making was one that people enjoyed talking about.
“I was learning how to take care of people without being intrusive,” she said. “I went as a friend.”
And that was how she came to hear the elders talk about how they made baskets all their lives, how the work supported their families.
“They have been making baskets for generations,” Cunningham said.
The people she visited talked about how to split the ash and how to prepare the materials for basket making. Cunningham began to teach herself more about making baskets.
“I never apprenticed with a master basket-maker. I’m mostly self-taught,” she said.
“Weaving [the basket] is the fun, easy part,” she said. “Preparing the ash is the hardest to do. The elders say it takes a community to make a basket.”
Traditionally, Penobscot hunters would find and cut the brown ash trees, someone else would pound the wood to get it ready for splitting, another person would scrape the splits smooth, another would gauge the splits into the desired widths, someone else would dye the splits and another would weave the baskets.
“After Glooskap made the animals, he shot an arrow into a brown ash tree, and it became the Wabanaki people. We come from the ash tree,” Cunningham said, referring to a Penobscot creation story.
These days, Cunningham buys brown ash already cut and pounded. She splits it into long strips, smooths it with a knife made with a deer antler handle, gauges it with handmade tools that have cutters made of recycled clock springs, and dyes it in various colors.
“I’m enjoying this,” Cunningham said, as she split and coiled brown ash strips she would use in future baskets. She worked with ease and grace, at one with the process.
Cunningham doesn’t know what a basket will look like when she starts weaving it. Ideas come to her as she works. However, the idea for the basket her customers most often ask for, her Honor Basket, which accounts for 80 percent of her sales, came to her in a dream about 15 years ago.
The basket is woven freehand. Each has a cover, on the inside of which is an ash — dyed green — and sweetgrass turtle, signifying that Cunningham belongs to the Penobscot Clan of the Turtle. The cover also comes with a smudger to be used to whisk away dense or negative energy. Each basket contains a sweetgrass prayer braid with one end formed into a heart shape, a quahog shell for use as a smudge dish, a small deer hide pouch containing cedar, sage, tobacco and sweetgrass (medicine for the four directions), and a dragonfly fashioned of brown ash, which signifies the power to shift shapes. Each basket also has woven into it the colors red, yellow, white and black, which stand for south, east, north and west, respectively.
From the Honor Basket has grown the Friendship Basket, the Courage Basket, the Sweetheart Basket and the Prayer Basket.
The original Honor Basket is now a part of the collection at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. Dartmouth College, Cunningham said, gives Honor Baskets she has made to each Native American student it graduates.
“It’s kind of like a meditation,” Cunningham said of making baskets. It’s like projecting energy into the basket, using her hands to connect with the person she is making the basket for, and how that person will use it, she said.
Cunningham’s basket making is primarily on a by-order basis. She takes part in one or two shows each year through membership in the Maine Indian Basketmakers’ Alliance. Orders for baskets keep her busy enough to work at her craft 9 a.m.-3 p.m. most days of the week, a schedule that allows time to walk her two dogs and see to the needs of her husband and two sons.
Cunningham also mentors students in basket making two days each week in an afterschool program at the Indian Island School. She said she learns as much by being with the students as they learn from her.
“I learn about their culture and traditions,” she said.
She is learning Penobscot language, focusing on the vocabulary of basket making, such as color words, number words and words for basket making materials.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “I have 12 people to converse with in Penobscot because the children are learning the language at school.”
The students, she has observed, seem as if they have been making baskets forever.
Cunningham also makes heart sweetgrass prayer braids that are given to cancer patients through Eastern Maine Medical Center’s CancerCare of Maine.
“I have so many ideas,” she said, “I can’t use them all. I love the whole creative process.”
The 2013 Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance sale and demonstration will be 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Hudson Museum, Collins Center for the Arts, University of Maine in Orono. The event will feature Maine Native American artists from New England, brown ash and sweetgrass basket-makers, birchbark artists, carvers and beadworkers.
Cunningham can be reached at email@example.com or 941-9373.
Bangor Public Library will host a Fiber Exhibition 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, at the library. Fiber artists who took part in past exhibitions and new fiber artists are invited to participate. If you knit, crochet, embroider, weave, hook, tat or other needleart, consider volunteering for exhibition. Artists are invited to display, demonstrate and be interactive with the public. This is not a sales event.
Those who wish to participate are encouraged to display several books they have learned from or which serve as inspiration as a tie-in with the library.
Approximately 35 fiber artists will be scattered throughout the library at tables or stations.
For information about participating, email Christy Coombs at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 947-8336, ext 129.