Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wabanaki Beadwork
The Algonkian tribes from Maine eastward to the Atlantic and northward to the St. Lawrence comprise what is called the northeastern Algonquian or Wabanaki group. This included the Penobscot of Penobscot Bay and River, the Passamaquoddy of Passamaquoddy Bay, the Malicite [also Maliseet] of St. John’s River, the Micmac of the coast of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, and Newfoundland, and also the Abenakie of St. Francis, Province of Quebec, originally from Maine and embracing several local bands, the Aroosaguntacook, Wawenock, and some others of unsettled identity. Of these divisions, however, the confederacy in historic times took in only the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Malecite, and Micmac (Speck 1915:492-493).

The Wabanaki are the “People of the Dawn” or the “Dawn Land People.” Though not specifically mentioned by Speck in the above quote, the western Abenaki from New Hampshire and Vermont were also related.

Making wood splint baskets is perhaps the oldest craft produced by the tribes in this region and images of the Wabanaki and their baskets appear in paintings and prints from as far back as the eighteenth century. The circa 1910 real photo postcard below is of Mi’kmaq chief Noel and his wife. A fine display of their fancy baskets can be seen on the box between them.

Willoughby reports that the earliest explorers and settlers of New England make no mention of splint baskets among the native population, though at least eight other varieties are mentioned (Willoughby 1905:85). Ruth Holmes Whitehead writes that

[s]plint baskets, too, are apparently a European introduction, first taken up as a commercial product in the late eighteenth century… [Furthermore] there are no surviving precontact basket fragments in wood splints, and they are not mentioned in any seventeenth-century source (Whitehead 2001: 292-293).

Resort areas in Vermont and New Hampshire were favorite destinations for these Algonquian speakers seeking outlets for their baskets and other souvenir items.  The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot from Maine frequently travelled to resort destinations to sell their work. In this circa 1870 stereoview by C. A. Paul of Skowhegan, Maine, a group of Wabanaki can be seen camped at the foot of Mt. Kineo, on Moosehead Lake.  The image is rich with examples of early fancy baskets, birch bark canoe models and several bark containers. 

It’s unclear if the western Abenaki were involved in making and selling souvenir beadwork during the nineteenth century. Baskets, birch bark canoe models, bark containers and other wood derived items appear to have been the mainstay of their commoditized crafts. In this rare circa 1860 carte-de-visite titled: Indian Camp at Franconia (New Hampshire) a group of what were likely Abenakis can be seen with a display of their baskets but there appears to be no beadwork. There is a detail view of the table below this image.

In a rare handbill, pasted to the inside cover of a late nineteenth century book on the Abenaki and English language, is an advertisement for the hand-made Abenaki Indian wares that were for sale in Intervale, New Hampshire. Circa 1893. This advertisement was pasted to both the inside front and back covers of: New Familiar Abenakis & English Dialogues by Jos. Laurent, Abenakis Chief. Printed by Leger Brousseau, Quebec, 1884.

Although the historic western Abenakis were not known to make souvenir beadwork for the nineteenth century tourist trade, their eastern relatives in Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia did. 

The commoditized beadwork of the Wabanaki has features that vary from those seen on Iroquois work. Beaded bags for instance, were often in the shape of a vase or an inverted keyhole, though there are exceptions to this. The flowers and leaf patterns on these bags are stylistically distinctive. Many of the flowers are daisy-like and can have as many as fifteen petals or as few as five and they usually have squared-off or gently rounded ends. There are not as many of these bags in collections today as the Haudenosaunee examples, perhaps because the Wabanaki were more involved in the basket trade. The design on this piece is in the form of a thistle. From the 3rd quarter of the nineteenth century.

The rare example below of a Wabanaki bag is constructed as a drawstring reticule. Most of the beads that form the floral and leaf designs are size 18/0 and the two horizontal strings of white beads that frame these designs are size 13/0. It’s approximately 5 inches in diameter and 6 ½ inches high. Circa 1850.  The band of black beads along the top was a commercial product and this was likely added at a later date.

This unusual drawstring reticule was found with the following old note: “The work of Molly Muise wife of Governor of the Mic Mac Tribe in Annapolis”. She is reputed to have lived to a great age and was so respected by her white neighbors that they erected a tombstone in her memory. She was born in Digby County, Nova Scotia, sometime in the third quarter of the eighteenth century and lived on the Bear River Indian Reserve, so this bag could date to the late eighteenth or the early nineteenth century.

This mid-nineteenth-century tintype of her, from the Nova Scotia Museum collection, is believed to be the earliest portrait of a Mi’kmaq woman by a photographic process. The Nova Scotia Museum website has more information about her.

If you have an interest in Northeast Woodland beadwork you might find my book of interest. Titled: A Cherished Curiosity: TheSouvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art by GerryBiron. 
Published in 2012. This is a brand new, hard cover book with dust jacket. 184 pages and profusely illustrated. 8.5 x 11 inches. ISBN 978-0-9785414-1-5.
Since the early nineteenth century, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beaded bags have been admired and cherished by travelers to Niagara Falls and other tourist destinations for their aesthetic beauty, detailed artistry, and the creative spirit of their makers.  A long neglected and misunderstood area of American Indian artistry, "souvenir" art as it's come to be called, played a crucial role in the subsistence of many Indian families during the nineteenth century. This lavishly illustrated history examines these bags – the most extensively produced dress accessory made by the Haudenosaunee – along with the historical development of beadworking both as an art form and as a subsistence practice for Native women.
In this book, the beadwork is considered in the context of art, fashion, and the tourist economy of the nineteenth century. Illustrated with over one hundred and fifty of the most important – and exquisite – examples of these bags, along with a unique collection of historical photographs of the bags in their original context, this book provides essential reading for collectors and researchers of this little understood area of American Indian art.

References Cited

Speck, Frank
1915    The Eastern Algonkian Wabanaki Confederacy in the American Anthropologist, Vol. 17.

Willoughby, Charles C.
1905    Textile Fabrics of the New England Indians, in American Anthropologist, New Series, Volume 7, F. W. Hodge, Editor, Lancaster, PA.

Whitehead, Ruth Holmes
2001    The Traditional Material Culture of the Native Peoples of Maine in Bruce Bourque, Twelve Thousand Years: Native Americans in Maine. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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