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Baskets by Judy Dow


Baskets by Judy Dow


Various Baskets, Plastic, Lumber, and Gourd, Abenaki

A History of Adaptation

Change through time. In nature, these three words define the process required of all living things for survival. For the Abenaki, they represent the survival of a culture. Without change, the people native to areas of northern New England and Southern Quebec would have no history and perhaps even more importantly, no future (Porter 6). 

Traditional Abenaki baskets were, and continue to be, woven from sweet grass and splints of ash (Dow, Personal Interview). Abenaki baskets, originally made using various techniques to serve a practical purpose, experienced a change in the late 1800s (Porter 6). Basketmakers adjusted to the changing times, ultimately creating "fancy baskets" (6). By the end of the last century, Abenaki fancy baskets were in such high demand that molds were created to increase production rates and to have a uniform product to sell, while the baskets themselves were sold through catalogs (6).

Judy Dow

By adapting to social, political, economic, and environmental changes, I am following in the footsteps of my ancestors. The creation of fancy baskets was an adaptation that filled a need for survival… using new and different materials is how I see Abenaki basketry meeting the needs of culture in this new century. - Judy Dow, We Are Still Here

Abenaki basketmaker, Judy Dow, is an important personality in the current Abenaki revitalization movement (Dow, Personal Interview). Her baskets have been on exhibit in many museums, such as Strawberry Banke and the National Museum of the American Indian (Vermont Governor's Institute on the Arts). Dow provides a unique approach in preserving Abenaki cultural identity through basketmaking by using nontraditional materials (Dow, Personal Interview).

Judy Dow's philosophies for "Saba" (Abenaki for tomorrow) bring awareness to how current mechanisms of revitalization do not honor change as a facet of Abenaki culture (Dow). By not continuing to adapt, the foundation of a culture is at risk.

Traditional Baskets

Abenaki baskets are traditionally made using four techniques: Coiling, twining, plaited, and one-piece (Dow). Judy Dow portrays each technique as a different branch on a single tree (Dow). Instead of only focusing on one branch, Dow uses all of the techniques when she incorporates her adaptations (Dow). While the material of the basket is changing (along with the tools used to make it) it is important to Dow that the technique remains: "The techniques are gifts from our ancestors" (Dow, Email).

In addition to the preservation of techniques, Dow illustrates how the basket making process should be conserved. For example, the art of basketmaking requires the individual to have a connection to the land and knowledge of it (Dow, Personal Interview). Basketmakers gather their own raw materials and prepare them by hand (Dow). In the traditional sense, this refers to basketmakers who cut and pound their own ash (Dow). Although Judy's baskets are not always made from ash, she continues to demonstrate the Abenaki tradition of harvest. She collects all her materials, be it plastic bags, pantyhose, or flax straw (Dow).

Above all, in order to be a basketmaker, one must portray patience, perseverance, preservation, and most importantly, pride. "The Four P's," as Dow puts it, should define Abenaki generations of the past, present, and future (Dow).

Importance of Adaptations

The conservation of the Brown Ash population has been a growing concern over the past few years, especially for Native American basketmakers - in part because of the introduction of the emerald beetle (USDA). The necessity for change has shifted the process of basketmaking towards the use of alternative materials. Judy Dow is perhaps the most creative and adaptive basketmaker today in many ways, all of which promote the conservation of brown ash and the adaptation to use other materials. She has made baskets out of a variety of 'everyday' materials such as old fast food bags, nylon, wrappers, and lumber strapping (Dow, Personal Interview). Because they attract the eye, baskets made out of this material bring attention to sustainability.

Her style of basketmaking underscores an important lesson that can be learned from Abenaki culture: the cost of cultural survival. If there is no longer a way to do something in the traditional sense, it is possible to adapt in a manner that maintains the cultural identity of the process. Along with recycling common materials, Judy Dow also finds creative ways of using everyday tools for basketmaking. For example, when her old splint cutting tool broke, she used her pasta cutter from her kitchen instead (Dow). This is one of many instances where adaptations are shown in Abenaki culture, further proving that it is possible for a heritage to survive once the significance  of adapting is taught to the younger - interested and willing - generations.

By adapting tools and materials, the basketry techniques will live on and then so will our heritage.Judy Dow, We Are Still Here

Works Cited

Dow, Judy. "Dowessay." 23 Nov. 2012. E-mail.

Dow, Judy. Personal Interview. 11 Oct. 2012.

Lori, Carolyn. "Shaping the talk on American Indians." The Valley News. 24 November 2005. Web.

Porter, Frank W. "Native American Basketry." The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Legacy. New York: Greenwood, 1990. 67. Print.

USDA Agricultural Research Service. "NPGS Ash Conservation Project." N.d. Digital file.

Vermont's Governor's Institute on the Arts. "Judy Dow." 12 June 2012. Web.

"We're Still Here" Online Exhibit. Center For New England Culture. University of New Hampshire. N.d. Web.

Basket Photographs (Right to Left)

1. Twined baskets
2. Plaited baskets using plastic (right) and (left) lumber
3. One piece basket using a gourd with pine needle trim and burned on designs
4. Coiled baskets using recycled plastic bags

Photograph Copyright 2005, University of New Hampshire Photographic Services


Dow, Judy




Megan Gibbons, UNH


Still Image







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