June 25, 2018
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The dying art of making ash wood baskets

Dick Harrison courtesy of UMPI
Dick Harrison courtesy of UMPI
Passamaquoddy basket maker Jeremy Frey of Indian Township (far right) addresses an audience at the University of Maine at Presque Isle during a presentation on the "Evolution of Basket Making: From Function to Art." Other panelists (from left) are Maliseets Fred Tomah of Houlton and Victor Bear of Tobique First Nation, N.B., Micmac Roldena Sanipass of Presque Isle and Penobscot Jennifer Neptune of Indian Island.
By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

When Roldena Sanipass was a girl she watched her mother weave strips of brown ash into traditional Micmac baskets. She could be seen in the background, pounding ash or cleaning splints while her mother, well-known basket maker Mary Sanipass, demonstrated her craft, but she didn’t have the confidence to weave one herself until she was 20.

“It was something I lived with, grew up with. Mother and Dad did it all for us,” Roldena, 45, told an audience at the University of Maine at Presque Isle in November, explaining that Donald and Mary Sanipass of Presque Isle fed and clothed their family by selling their handmade baskets. “I was brought up with ash wood.”

Today, even though she creates everything from pack baskets to her signature miniature potato baskets, Roldena, an art and photography student at UMPI, does not see herself following in her mother’s footsteps. “The ash wood is dying along with the art,” she said.

One of five basket makers from Native tribes in the region on a Nov. 30 panel, β€œThe Evolution of Basket Making: From Function to Art,” Roldena pinpointed a twin threat to the tradition of making ash baskets. Native basket weavers not only need to pass their skills on to the next generation, but also to protect the ash trees from a pest that has devastated the species in states west of Maine.

Called the emerald ash borer, the beetle hatches in the tops of trees and begins to defoliate them. By the time the damage is visible, the tree is too far gone to save.

“When the borer gets here, it’s going to eradicate the entire species,” Fred Tomah, 60, a panelist from the Maliseet Tribe in Houlton, said in an interview. “It’s created havoc in other states. It travels so far each year.”

Tomah is planning for the worst, saving seeds from healthy ash trees to plant after the existing trees die off. In the meantime, he is considering alternative materials.

“If [the infestation] should come in my time, my baskets can be made from cane,” he said, adding that split oak used by the Cherokee Tribe is another option. “Basket making can go on in the absence of ash.

“Scientists think they can get a handle on it,” he added, but said going to meetings focused on the emerald ash borer is “like attending a funeral.”

Panelist Jennifer Neptune, 42, of the Penobscot Tribe on Indian Island is more optimistic. She explained in an interview that four or five years ago members of the Ojibway Tribe in Michigan warned basket makers in Maine to take precautions before the emerald ash borer reached Maine.

“We have time to plan for it,” she said, explaining that the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance is working with the University of Maine, the Maine Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service to come up with a plan.

“Our goal is to keep [the borer] out of Maine,” she said. “Don’t move wood. Don’t bring firewood from out of state. Buy locally.”

One prevention effort conducted last spring, she explained, involved toll booth operators handing out Maine Forest Service literature about the borer to tourists and travelers entering Maine with wood from out of state.
The visitors at that point were asked to trade their firewood for wood grown in Maine.

“The impact [of the pest] is huge for basket makers, but also for the Maine environment,” she said. “People should be aware.”

Neptune is encouraged by Maine Forest Service tests using native wasps to provide early detection of emerald ash borers. The wasps (Cerceris fumitennis) hunt the beetles and bring them from the treetops to their nests on the ground where they can be identified.

“It’s like an early warning system,” she said, noting that the wasps tend to nest around ball fields. A nest was discovered in Dedham and scientists are trying to locate others.

“It’s definitely scary, but we are hopeful. We have more time than other states. We hope science can catch up with the beetle.”

But what of the other threat to the future of basket making? Is there a reason for the next generation to learn the craft? Native weavers had a ready market for their products when farmers needed ash baskets to harvest potatoes. Why make baskets today?

One answer is found in the title of the presentation “from function to art.”
While there is still a market for utilitarian baskets to hold everything from potatoes to napkins to laundry, ash baskets also have value as works of fine art.

“It’s not basket making anymore, it’s an art,” said Victor Bear, 68, lifelong producer of Maliseet baskets in the Tobique First Nation of New Brunswick.
Bear began making baskets as a boy and took it up again in retirement.

“I got a chain saw for a retirement gift,” Bear told the Presque Isle audience, indicating he starts his work by cutting down the tree. “I work alone. I’m my own boss. I used to hate making baskets, now I love it. That’s my way of life today.”

Panelist Jeremy Frey, 33, of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Indian Township echoed Bear’s feelings. “I love what I do. I tried other things. When it came to art, I loved it.

“A lot was missing from my life of video games and TV,” Frey said, in Presque Isle. “I filled the holes by misbehaving.” But he always liked art, and when he realized he could turn his art into a business he embraced it with exuberance. He also teaches basket making to local young people.

“When I finally finished a basket I felt energy as though someone else had made it. It was kind of a spiritual thing.”

Frey is one of only two Native artists to win “best-of-show” awards from the nation’s two largest Indian markets in the same year β€” the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market and the Santa Fe Indian Market β€” and he recently received a $50,000 grant from the Los Angeles-based United States Artists, a national grant-making and advocacy organization.

“I keep challenging myself to make something different,” he said.

For Neptune, Frey represents the new generation of basket makers. “The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance has had a big impact on teaching and training of basket makers,” she said. “Jeremy is a product of that program.” And he is not the only one. “Other young people are really good,” she said. “Hang out with basket makers long enough and they transform you.”

And while Roldena Sanipass might not weave baskets for a career, if a child asks her how to make one, she is able to pass the craft on to future generations.

“It’s like riding a bicycle,” she said. “Once you learn you can’t forget.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.

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