The centuries-old proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day . . . Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” still holds true today.
One skill, which has provided functional containers and income for Native Americans for many years, is basketmaking. Baskets have been woven for hunting, fishing, gathering crops, and even decorative purposes. Like quilting and some other crafts, however, basketmaking almost became obsolete. By the early 1990s, there were fewer than a dozen practicing basketmakers in Maine under 50 years old.
Today, through the efforts of Penobscot basket artist and advocate Theresa Secord and the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, there are more than 200 basket-makers in Maine. Their average age is 40 years old. Secord was the first U.S. citizen to receive the Prize for Creativity in Rural Life from the Women’s World Summit Foundation, granted at the UN in Geneva Switzerland. The prize was for helping to revive traditional basketmaking among Native American tribal peoples and teaching them how to become self-sufficient. She continues to travel to large reservations, throughout the U.S., training Native American artists how to market their work.
Secord was introduced to the art of basketry as a child while visiting her grandparents on Indian Island. She grew up in the Portland area but enjoyed visiting relatives and learning more about the culture. Secord admired her ancestors not only for their proficiency in making baskets but also for their ability to persevere in difficult circumstances and earn a living selling baskets. Her great grandmother, Philomene Saulis Nelson, was a well-known weaver who sold baskets on Indian Island.
“I admire the resilience of my ancestor basketmakers, especially my great grandmother, who actively practiced economic self-sufficiency as an Indigenous woman entrepreneur,” Secord said.
Although Secord was interested in basketry as a youth, she decided to pursue a career in geology. However, her life took a different turn when she accepted a position as staff geologist for the Penobscot Nation on Indian Island. It was there that she became acquainted with the well-known Penobscot basketmaker and speaker Madeline Tomer Shay. She instructed Secord in the tribal language and mentored her in the fundamentals of weaving baskets for five years.
“Ours is a community art form, in that the mentoring and the economy surrounding the traditional materials access takes place within the Wabanaki community,” Secord said.
Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance
In 1993, a group of tribal basketmakers from the four federally recognized tribes in Maine expressed concern about the declining number of basketmakers among the younger generation. Secord assisted them in founding the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance (MIBA) to help preserve their traditional basketmaking practices through mentoring and workshops.
MIBA programs have included a 10-year-long traditional arts apprenticeship program in which apprenticeships were awarded to basketmakers ent of Native Americans earn income from arts and culture-based practices.
Secord’s goal has been to build a better infrastructure for tribal artists. She has traveled to tribal nations across the U.S. to coach emerging artists and small arts businesses. She has conducted trainings on Indian reservations in Minnesota, Washington state, Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota, and upstate New York.
“Most of my trainings take place at large rural Indian reservations,” said Secord. “The largest was the 1.2-million-acre Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state, near Grand Coulee Dam.”
Secord not only was awarded the Prize for Creativity in Rural Life by the Women’s World Summit Foundation. The National Endowment for the Arts bestowed her with the National Heritage Fellowship at the 2016 Tribal Nations Conference at the White House (an annual meeting held between U.S. presidents and tribal leaders to discuss economic, health, and cultural issues affecting tribes). She has also been the recipient of numerous other awards for her efforts to preserve the art of Penobscot basketmaking and to help Native Americans improve their economic conditions.
Advocating for Inclusion
Secord is a member of the Board of Governors at Colby College Museum of Art. She said that Colby recently featured the first standalone Wabanaki art exhibition ever to be presented in an art museum. Some museums have exhibited individual Wabanaki pieces as part of a mixed collection, but Colby was the first to present a Wabanaki standalone collection, Secord said.
Regarding her plans, Secord said the current pandemic has caused her to re-evaluate her life. One of her top priorities, she said, is ensuring sure that her son Caleb is thoroughly trained in all aspects of Penobscot basketmaking to carry on the tradition. She has also focusing more on her own creative art ex-pression and marketing her work which recently included participating in a virtual market. She won first place ribbons for her basketry at the Santa Fe Indian Market, the Eiteljorg Indian Market in Indianapolis, and the Heard Museum Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix. Her website is https://www.theresasecord.com/.
Secord has been actively involved in educating the public about the invasion of the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle into Maine. The beetle, which originated in Asia, is a serious threat to the ash trees used by many Native American basket makers.
“What is in Maine’s favor is that the ash trees do not grow here in large contiguous forests, like they do in the Midwest, so the spread is not as easy,” said Secord. “The foresters tell us there will be pockets of ash that will survive the invasion.”
In response to the threat of the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle, Secord pioneered the use of cedar bark overlay on ash to conserve ash. She also taught the technique to the next generation of basketmakers. She is now making her baskets smaller to help conserve ash as well. She’s following in the footsteps of her ancestors who demonstrated the ability to withstand many kinds of adversity.
“The resilience of my ancestors to withstand pandemics and all kinds of adversity, as they wove baskets and kept our culture alive, inspires me,” Secord said.