News & Events

UMPI to host panel on Native basket-making

The University of Maine at Presque Isle will welcome five respected basket-makers from Native tribes throughout the region when Project Compass hosts the panel presentation The Evolution of Basket-Making: From Function to Art on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 6 p.m. in the Campus Center.

The panelists will discuss basket-making, its origins and history, and how members of the Native community are keeping the tradition alive today. Panelists are scheduled to include Fred Tomah from the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Victor Bear from Tobique First Nation, Roldena Sanipass from the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Jennifer Neptune from the Penobscot Nation, and Jeremy Frey from the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

“We are delighted to have such well-known and highly-regarded basket-makers from across Maine and New Brunswick taking part in this special event,” UMPI President Don Zillman said. “This event will open an important dialogue around Native history and culture and help to deepen our understanding of this traditional art form.”

Fred Tomah is a master basket-maker from the Maliseet Tribe who has worked with brown ash for more than 45 years. He is known for more than a dozen styles of baskets, including the Quadrifoil Twill Weave Basket, the Katahdin Smoke Signal Basket, and his basket backpack, a hand-woven brown ash backpack highly prized by outdoorsmen from Maine to Alaska. As a master of traditional basket-making, Tomah was featured on the MPBN program Home: The Story of Maine in the episode People of the Dawn. His work is sought after by collectors around the globe and his Katahdin Arctic Butterfly Basket is featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Victor Bear is known throughout eastern Canada as a lifelong producer of Maliseet baskets and is Tobique First Nation’s only full-time basket-maker. Trained in the craft by his father, who was trained by his father, Bear has been making baskets since before he can remember. His work is on display in the Smithsonian and the Museum of Man in Ottawa. He also was featured in the documentary series Samaqan: Water Stories, which airs on the Canadian network APTN. In the hour-long episode, Jeff Bear, the show’s executive producer and writer who is also Victor’s brother, shows viewers the step-by-step process it takes for Bear to create a traditional basket – from felling the black ash trees to weaving the final product.

Roldena Sanipass is a third-generation basket-maker who creates everything from pack baskets to her signature miniature potato baskets. Her work is on display at the Aroostook Band of Micmacs Administration Office. She was taught her craft by her mother and nationally acclaimed Native basket-maker, Mary Sanipass. Her parents have been featured in anthropology texts and a documentary film, and were honored in 2004 with a Community Spirit Award by the First People’s Fund, a national nonprofit organization committed to supporting the creative work of American Indian artists. This passion for and recognition of traditional basket-making in her family have helped to shape the kind of basket-maker Roldena Sanipass has become.

Jennifer Neptune is a Penobscot basket-maker and bead-worker with the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. Her work is on display in the Maine State Museum and she contributed to the book North by Northwest, which explores traditional arts from three Native tribes, including the Wabanaki. Neptune is a major proponent of Native crafts as art and keeping the tradition alive. She guest curated the show Spirit of the Basket Tree: Wabanaki Ash Splint Baskets from Maine, which was on display at the Hood Museum of Art in 2009. She also has delivered lectures on Native basket-making and serves as a partner on a University of Maine project to address a very serious issue for Native basket-makers: an invasive beetle that could destroy the brown ash trees used to make their baskets.

Jeremy Frey is a Passamaquoddy basket weaver who specializes in ash and sweetgrass basketry and porcupine quillwork. He has made a full-time career out of creating Native baskets that mix the traditional with the modern. Frey comes from a long line of basket-makers — his family has passed down the tradition for several generations – so he uses traditional techniques, but he likes to experiment and create new works of art. Frey also works hard to pass the tradition on to the next generation. He teaches basket-making with local youth to perpetuate the art form within his tribe. He also serves as a board member of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance to support Native basketry.

Frey recently earned the distinction of winning Best of Show awards from the country’s two largest Indian Markets – the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market and the Santa Fe Indian Market. Only one other Native artist has ever won both festivals in the same year. Frey’s work is on display at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Heard Museum and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. Frey also recently was awarded a $50,000 arts grant from the Los Angeles-based United States Artists, a national grant-making and advocacy organization founded in 2005 by the Ford, Rockefeller, Prudential and Rasmuson foundations.

The Nov. 30 event that brings together all of these artists will include a Native Blessing and an introduction by President Don Zillman. The panel will be led by facilitator John Dennis, Cultural Director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. Following the panelists’ remarks, there will be a Q&A. After the presentation, all are invited to attend a reception in the Alumni Room. Light refreshments will be served and baskets made by the panelists will be on display and for sale. For more information, contact 768-9452.