New Basket Exhibit Opens Window to Wabanaki Culture

The newly-installed basket exhibit at the Wabanaki Cultural Center has dozens of pieces in a variety of styles, including some by Clara and Rocky Keezer. The exhibit is part of Eric Altvater’s personal collection, and it contains a basket by his great-grandmother, Rose Burns, as well as pieces by his father, Bill. The museum, which offers other exhibits related to the traditional Wabanaki way of life, is open 7 days a week and there is no fee for entry. (Photos by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson

 

When is an object more than an object? What may appear to be a simple handwoven basket can carry an immeasurable history with it: encompassing the heritage of the people that made it, it is a personal work of art shaped from traditional materials gifted by Creator, according to oral legend. For the Wabanaki, baskets are themselves vessels of culture. Such is the perspective of Eric Altvater, Facilities Manager for Maine Indian Education, whose collection of dozens of handmade Passamaquoddy baskets is now on display at the Wabanaki Cultural Center in Calais.

The baskets range greatly in style, size and age. Several of them were made by Clara Keezer, who, in the 1990s, was among the first Passamaquoddy to receive national recognition for her work. Others were made by her son, Rocky. “One winter I think I bought just about every basket that she and Rocky made,” Altvater said with a chuckle.

Some of the baskets are distinctly functional in appearance, including a fish scale basket set up at the back of the exhibit. The basket dates back to the 1960s when the pearlescent industry was booming in Maine and demand for baskets to transport herring scales was sky high. Unable to find enough materials to meet the demand, Passamaquoddy basket makers were given plastic strips with which to supplement their baskets. The specimen in Altvater’s collection was made with red plastic strips – by his own father, Bill.

“My father epitomized entrepreneurship. He was a weir fisherman, a basket maker and he made Christmas wreaths for florists as far south as Baltimore,” Altvater recalls. He described his father’s basket making business and how as a young boy he was assigned to watch the shop. “There’s a lot of life lessons to learn in taking care of a basket store.”

While his father discouraged him from going into the basket making trade himself, the experience of growing up around it was more than enough to instill a deep appreciation for basket making. “I appreciate the art and the effort. The work. It’s definitely a labor of love. They didn’t do it to make all kinds of money, that’s for sure,” Altvater said. He remembers selling baskets in his father’s shop for $3.50.

Like many Passamaquoddy, Altvater’s connection with basket making goes back for generations. The oldest piece in his collection is a two-toned, flat, circular basket made by his great-grandmother, Rose Burns.

Some pieces took a particular amount of time to create, including an elaborate porcupine quill basket. Altvater explained that he purchased it in Mi’kmaw territory after some deliberation, a choice he is very happy with today, particularly since he is able to share it with others. “This is the first time it’s seen the light of day for 17 years. I’ve just had it all put away. I figure somebody should see them.”

Having the collection on display is bittersweet in some ways for Altvater. “Sometimes I feel like we’re losing our connections with the past. This is the way I like to remember it. When I think about the people who made these baskets and the way it was when I was growing up. The sense of community that we had. We don’t have as much of that anymore. It saddens me when I think about it. This, to me, is honoring my culture and my history. Whenever I come here, I get to go back in time to when I was a kid.”

The Wabanaki Cultural Museum is open seven days a week. There is no cost for entry.

Endangered traditional materials

The recent incursion of the emerald ash borer into Maine is a significant threat to the Passamaquoddy tradition of basketmaking, Altvater explained. The invasive insect cuts off a tree’s ability to draw water and nutrients into itself, killing an adult tree within a few years.

Altvater sees one potential solution that would enable basket making to continue, at least temporarily. “I think we have the wherewithal – maybe not the will – but, financially, I think we have the wherewithal to go out and gather ash, process it and store it. Once it is processed, we can store it in a certain area and keep it dry. Then we can wet it and start using it again.”

 

Brown ash is among the traditional materials used by the Passamaquoddy in basket making, and Altvater doesn’t mince his words in expressing the danger the ash borer implies. “If we lose basketmaking, it’s almost the same as losing our language.”