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Berry Basket with Floral Design (c. 1840)


Berry Basket with Floral Design (c. 1840)


Berry Basket, c. 1840, Ash Splint, Possibly Mohegan, Housed at Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum

For generations of indigenous people, the art of basketry has been a primary source of economic survival and cultural preservation. Basket making is never a solitary process; from the gathering and preparation of materials, learning the many styles and techniques of basketry, to marketing and distribution, networks of people become involved and play crucial roles in their manufacturing. From traveling basket makers in Victorian times to present-day craftspeople showcasing their work in fairs and conventions, basketry continues to emphasize the importance of family life and oral tradition along with the relevance of non-text based communal literacy.

The Meaning of the Floral Design

This particular basket is a small berry basket featuring a floral pattern, alternating horizontal bands of red and blue, and a series of diagonal dash marks next to every flower. According to Wabanaki basket expert Gaby Pelletier, berry baskets tended to be made quickly and efficiently so they could be used to hold fruits that would be sold along with their container. The patterns on the sides may have been created using potato stamps, a method of decorating that quickened the production of baskets for selling purposes and according to Pelletier is highly unusual for Abenaki baskets to have. This basket’s floral design may have been used to attract white clients to the berries being sold by evoking imagery from European art styles; however it could also be interpreted as being a symbol of nature, thus showing the ability of indigenous people to maintain their cultural identity while still appeasing white settlers. Small berry baskets such as this were also helpful in allowing children to pick fruit alongside their families and enabling them to observe cultural traditions and learn valuable life skills. Yet Pelletier also explains that the basket's handle is indicative of European influence, as its attachments are too delicate for the wear that it would have received during berry picking, perhaps suggesting that this basket may have been sold as a souvenir rather than used for utilitarian purposes.

The Importance of Family

Family life always has been and continues to be a key factor in the preservation of the basket making tradition among Native Americans of New England. In the film "Our Lives in Our Hands" by Harold Prins and Karen Carter, a documentary examining Mi'kmaq basketry, the majority of people interviewed described their family as playing a crucial role in how they acquired their basket making abilities. Several of the people interviewed described how they learned through watching relatives weaving for years, echoing the importance of a non-text based form of literacy. While both men and women take an equal part in the process of weaving, men were traditionally more likely to go out into the woods to cut down and pound the ash trees that baskets were typically made from. However, one man interviewed did mention that due to the decline in passing down traditions such as basket making (and language), he has started showing his daughters how to make the tools such as axes needed to make splints along with his son.

Relationship between Europeans, Natives, and Basketmaking

Once colonists began arriving in New England, baskets became a link between the native people and the Europeans. Lisa Neuman's article "Basketry as Economic Enterprise and Cultural Revitalization" explains the history of basketry as a non-threatening economic enterprise: "Beginning in the 1860s, Wabanaki families began to set up summer encampments in Maine's famed resort area of Bar Harbor, on Mt. Desert Island, primarily to sell baskets and crafts to tourists and the island's wealthy summer residents. At Bar Harbor, Wabanaki families would sell door to door and invite potential customers to visit their encampments, sometimes dressing in clothing that met tourists' romanticized expectations of Indianness to attract sales (Neuman 93)". This method of sales enabled Indigenous craftspeople to introduce European settlers to their way of life, allowing these colonists to lift the veil and see them not as stereotypes, but rather as another culture with similarities to their own. The essay "'A Precarious Living': Basket Making and Related Crafts Among New England Indians" by Nan Wolverton reaffirms the communal nature of basketry: "Like basket makers, chair bottomers traveled to the homes of their customers, and there they performed their craft, often telling stories simultaneously. By spending many hours within the family circles, these artisans often earned the respect and friendship of their customers through their work and their stories" (Wolverton 356-357). Maintaining repeat customers was very common among Native basket members, and in some instances this resulted in lifelong friendships between whites and Native Americans. This sort of traveling salesmanship can be seen as bridging the divide between Native peoples and the white societies they lived on the fringes of through the trust gained through their craftsmanship.

Basketmaking Today

Today basket and craft fairs encourage communication between tribes as well as between native and non-native residents of New England. These fairs encourage non-native people to ask questions and learn through hearing directly from tribe members about their trade and culture. These conversations echo the early tenuous cross-cultural bridges made between Native people and the colonists whose homes they visited to demonstrate their craft and tell their stories in the 1800s. Annual craft fairs are also a way for members of the same tribe to get together and talk to one another face to face. These fairs provide an “opportunity to travel and spend time with relatives from around the region. Basket sales also provide people with the opportunity to promote cross-cultural awareness, and this can be intertribal as well as intercultural” (Neuman 97). The Mi'kmaq tribe also has a “Basket Bank”, a place where craftspeople making baskets can bring their work to sell for a fairer price than they might receive elsewhere, and in turn their baskets are resold as well as used for demonstrations or showcasing in museums. Websites such as the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance provide information about upcoming basket and craft fairs with links to websites for tribes in Maine, museums, and national basket associations as well as showcasing their mission statements: preservation of natural resources such as sweet grass for future generations, expanding markets, and maintaining and handing down traditions for younger generations and other tribes.

Works Cited

Calloway, Colin G., ed. Reinterpreting New England Indians and the Colonial Experience. 2003. Print.

Neuman, Lisa K. "Basketry as Economic Enterprise and Cultural Revitalization: The Case of the Wabanaki Tribes of Maine." Wicazo Sa Review. 25.2 (2010): 86-106. Print.

Dir. Prins, Harold, and Carter, Karen. Our Lives in Our Hands. Northeast Historic Film. DVD.






circa 1840


Emily Fortin, UNH '13


Image used with permission of Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, Warner, NH


Still Image







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