Wall Basket, late 1700s to mid 1800s, Ash Splint, Abenaki, Housed at the Hopkinton Historical Society
Probably used to store fruits and vegetables, this basket was made to hang on a hook on the wall (Hopkinton Historical Society). Wide-open spaces at the bottom of the basket would allow air to circulate facilitating the quick drying of food or other items placed in the basket (Hopkinton Historical Society). According to the Hopkinton Historical Society, there is a residue on the inside of the basket that may suggest something wet was hung to dry inside it (Hopkinton Historical Society). The strong handle would probably be able to support a heavy load. In addition, the edge of the basket is reinforced with a continuous splint in a spiral formation. The strength of the basket illustrates the skill with which baskets are made. Although the basket is utilitarian in nature, "red and black natural dyes were swabbed on the exterior of some of the splints and on the visible portion of the interior"(Hopkinton Historical Society). The visible black splints make a square checkerboard shape, which compliments the pattern of the plain colored splints. The black splints were dyed with natural dyes, which suggest the date of the basket to be from the late 1700s to mid 1800s (Hopkinton Historical Society).
A Basket Speaks
But what analysis can be gained by looking at a basket? How much can a basket say? In her essay, "The Cultural Work of a Mohegan Painted Basket," Stephanie Fitzgerald writes, "Baskets, which were and still are ceremonial and utilitarian objects used for transportation and storage of items, prayer ceremonies, and traditional games, function as communicative devices. In sum, by touching every aspect of daily Native life, both past and present, basketry is imbued with cultural and spiritual power" (Fitzgerald 53). As an object needed for daily use, baskets have a direct connection to daily Native life. Because a basket is connected to the community, both now and in the past, through the basket making process and through its functional uses, baskets form a big part of Abenaki culture and tradition.
An Open Dialogue
Non-native written documents are biased and looking at non-alphabetic texts can create a bigger picture and form a more complete version of history. In his article, "Oral Tradition as Complement," Gordon Day writes, "All through the period of discovery, exploration and colonization they caught only glimpses of the Indian's attitudes, motivations, and understanding of the situation, and they were obviously not in a position to observe many events which were witnessed by Indian observers" (Day). In other words, non-native texts cannot explain everything because there is much that was only seen through the Indian's perspectives. Additionally, non-native writers were often biased and could not understand the position of the Abenaki: "dialogue with indigenous records enable us to imagine a literary tradition routed in negotiation and dialogues - rather than simply conquest and colonial monologues as the foundation of American Literature" (Rasmussen 9). The possibility of "A literary tradition routed in negotiation and dialogues" is why baskets are included within this archive (9). They are witnesses to a larger picture of history. Furthermore, because the Abenaki are not federally recognized it is important to appreciate baskets as a form of documentation that proves the continuing presence of Abenaki people, culture and traditions. As part of the criteria for recognition includes “documentation of sustained unity and government,” baskets can only aid the goal (Lindholm).
The Abenaki Today
The Abenaki are not federally recognized, however, four Abenaki bands, The Missisquoi, the Koasek, The Nulhegan, and Elnu tribes, have Vermont state recognition. This state recognition is important because of three reasons. First, it allows their artisans to sell items with the Native American made label, which lets the artisans sell their wares for a higher price. This enables many basketmakers to be financially independent through their craft. Second, it “allows members to apply for some federal programs including housing and education grants” (Lindholm). It opens the doors for the society to progress. Third, it provides a positive emphasis on their idea of identity. In other words, they no longer have to fight as hard to convince others of their identification as Abenaki: "Wabanaki Basketry can be used by Wabanaki people to assert tribal sovereignty and promote decolonization" (Neuman 100). Basketry also works as an outlet of communication between natives and non-natives (Neuman). It enables the dialogue started by looking at native texts to continue.
The Worth of a Basket
By focusing only on written works, a heavily non-native view is explored. Baskets add an additional piece of the puzzle to the Abenaki view of the world. Baskets such as this one prove that the Abenaki had and continue to have their own concrete culture.
Although this basket is utilitarian and not decorative as some of the fancy baskets in this archive, the “textuality” or literary worth of the basket is evident through its materials, its uses, and the careful process of basketmaking. This archive aims to be one of inclusion, not exclusion. By including both utilitarian and fancy baskets in context with their materials, the process of basketmaking, and the way that baskets continue to affect the Abenaki and other tribes today, a larger literary picture is formed.
Dawnland: Abenaki Creation Story. Youtube Video,n.d.
Fitzgerald, Stephanie. "The Cultural Work of a Mohegan Painted Basket." Early Native Literacies in New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008. 52-56. Print.
Lindholm, Jane. "Recognizing Vermont's Abenaki." Vermont Edition. Vermont Public Radio, 8 May 2012. Web. 13 July 2012.
McMullen, Ann. Key into the Language of Woodsplint Baskets. Institution for American Indian Studies, 1987. Print.
Mundell, Kathleen. North by Northeast: Wabanaki, Akwesasne Mohawk, and Tuscarora Traditional Arts. Tilbury House Publishers, 2008. 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.
Rasmussen, Birgit Brander. Queequeg’s Coffin: Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature. Duke University Press Books, 2012. Print.
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