Tradition and Adaptation: The Evolution of Mi'kmaq Basketry

By Joleen Gordon

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2011

 
Sewing Basket by Caroline Gold. 2010. White ash, sweetgrass ornamentation.
Caroline Gold, Sewing Basket, 2010. White ash, sweetgrass ornamentation. Photograph: Krista Comeau

Mi’kmaq First Nations People in Atlantic Canada draw on the natural world to provide the plant and animal fibres and dye sources necessary for their basketry. This extensive knowledge of surrounding resources–seasonal gathering times, preparation methods and weaving techniques to use with specific materials–has evolved over the years with demographic, economic and environmental shifts.


Two major archaeological sites have revealed information essential to the history of basket making. In both cases, fragments of organic material have been preserved owing to the presence of copper sulphate, acting as a biocide. The 2,500-year-old Augustine Mound on the Miramichi River in northeastern New Brunswick contained residues of an apparently affluent salmon-rich fishing area where makers created exceptional textiles with materials gathered from fauna and flora: moose-tendon warps wrapped with bundles of moose hairs; alternating rows of unwrapped and porcupine quill-wrapped moose-tendon warps separated by rows of tendon twining; woven two-ply fibre used in both warp and weft; braids of plant leaves, wood splints and spun animal hair. Many of these fibres have yet to be identified.


The second site, from about 1570-1590 AD, was found near Pictou, Nova Scotia. Most basketry materials have been identified. Long flat leaves of the cattail plant (Typha latifolia) with their ends were bound together with cordage made from another plant, true rush (Scirpus lacustris). The leaves were hung in curtain fashion and sewn, at handwidth intervals, in two separate layers with grass twisted into a two-ply thread.


Cattail leaves were also braided in three-strand cords that anchored the sewing threads on each side of the mat. It is believed that large sewn cattail mats were used for wall construction in summer dwellings; the vertical flat leaves guided summer rains to the ground while the latticed effect of the overlapped leaf construction provided air circulation within the dwelling and the open space between the two layers allowed air insulation on cool nights. Smaller mats may have been used for seat cushioning in canoes.


Rush was also used to make large floor mats. No archaeological evidence has yet been found, although Marc Lescarbot (ca. 1570-1642), a young Parisian lawyer who was in Port Royal in 1606, recorded such matting and described the dyed rush patterning:


[They] make mats of rushes, wherewith they garnish their cabins, and others to sit upon, and all very artificially, yea, also colouring their rushes; they make partitions in their works, like to them that our gardeners do make in their garden knots, and such measure and proportion as nothing is found amiss therein.


The Pictou site also revealed twined rush fragments, most likely the remains of bag-like containers. Several rushes were bound mid-length closely together with a single row of rush twining, and folded in half along this line; the free ends forming the framework of the bag. The rush twining was continued in one continuous row up the sides of the bag, adding new rush framework pieces at both sides for shaping and new rushes into the twining when required.


Grasses such as sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) and American beach grass (Amophilia brevingulata) were also used for making twisted and plied sewing thread and small twined baskets.


Outer bark of the white birch tree (Betula papyrifera) was cut, folded and stitched into an amazing number of items; heavy bark was used for sturdier objects such as canoes and thinner bark for lightweight containers.


Inner barks of other trees provided sheets of material for weaving. Thick and spongy white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) was split and re-split into narrow widths for matting. Lightweight and porous basswood (Tilia Americana) was retted (soaked in water to separate the fibres), dried and then spun into two-ply cords which were twined in spaced rows to make bag-like containers and nets.


When Europeans introduced steel tools and their agricultural economy in the seventeenth century, the Mi’kmaq adapted these new technologies to their basket making. The skill of weaving with soft plant materials was gradually lost in favour of loom-woven cloth, blankets and carpeting. Influenced by northern European wood-splint baskets, the Mi’kmaq added their old skill of splitting and re-splitting the inner cedar bark—for lining their canoes—to pounding and splitting hardwood trees such as black ash (Fraxinus nigra) and white ash (Fraxinus Americana) into ribbon-like wood splints. These were woven into sturdy agricultural baskets for sale and barter. Much later, logs of poplar (Populus tremuloides) were cut by American-made veneer machines into wide splints for less durable, special-use containers, such as Easter baskets.


Mi’kmaq craftsmen were ingenious toolmakers. They crafted gauges of many sizes from cut and sharpened watch springs set into wooden handles to cut fine and yet finer wood-splints, woven into whimsies and fancy catch-all baskets popular in the souvenir market.


Basketmakers developed several decorative projecting patterns by folding and twisting a second splint-weaver into the surface weave of the basket. The three most popular patterns were jikiji’j or periwinkle or curls, porcupine quill, and the standard diamond. “The periwinkle weave is possibly one of the oldest known decorative effects,” according to retired ethnologist Ruth Holmes Whitehead. Today, the Mi’kmaq word jikiji’j is used to refer to all decorative surface-weaves.


Organic plant dyes were discarded when chemical dyes became more cost effective to make brighter, more colourful baskets. Fragrant sweetgrass continues to be used as a weaver, either in single strands or in lengths of three-strand braid, as well as a bundle of strands bound onto the rims of fancy baskets.


The Ursuline nuns of Quebec taught Mi’kmaq women to embroider with dyed moose hairs on birchbark, creating elaborate floral patterned Victorian whimsies such as callingcard trays, fans and napkin rings. The souvenir market also encouraged the making of geometric-patterned porcupine-quilled birchbark boxes of many sizes and functions.


A family of Black basketmakers from the American South settled outside Halifax after the War of 1812. Their descendants perpetuated the craft using red maple (Acer rubrum) to make ribbed baskets which they sold at the weekly Halifax City Market, alongside the Mi’kmaq basket sellers. The Mi’kmaq never seemed to make this distinctive style of basket, but they may have been inspired to use the material, as well as the technique of making the strips into small, popular maple-strip fancy baskets.


Modern Mi’kmaq basketmakers have been forced to adapt their craft to environmental change. Greenhouse gases and introduced pests have weakened many trees. The bark of the birch is no longer thick, and canoe-makers too must search further afield. While the white ash population is stable, black ash trees are not plentiful. Indeed, all ash trees are in danger of being killed by the imported Asian Emerald Ash Beetle. Poplar trees, often regarded as ‘junk’ wood by the timber trade, have also become scarce.


Dwindling wood materials have forced some basketmakers to supply the apple industry with sturdy picking baskets woven with man-made plastic tape on a framework of wood splints. Fancy basketmakers have shifted from mass production to focus on details—colour patterning, carved wooden handles and elaborate patterned baskets for the basket collector and for ceremonial gifting. Other artists use less material by creating miniature baskets from wood splints so fine and narrow that they defy the eye, let alone the hand.


Basketmakers have also been relearning the old ways of gathering, preserving, preparing and weaving with the soft plant and animal materials to make reproductions used in programming for cultural-heritage interpretation centres. Mi’kmaq basketmakers are rediscovering, maintaining and developing new ways of using materials gathered from their environment to keep their basket traditions alive.


Joleen Gordon is a Research Associate at the Nova Scotia Museum and is President of the Nova Scotia Basketry Guild. The author wishes to thank Ruth Holmes Whitehead, Ursula A. Johnson and Cheryl Simon for their assistance in the preparation of this article.