The Wabanaki are the “People of the Dawn” or the “Dawn Land People,” the name they called themselves. Traditionally, subsistence for the Wabanaki was based on hunting and gathering. After European settlement and the eighteenth-century wars between the French and English, they were forced to settle on reservations. The rapid growth of non-Indian settlements during the early nineteenth century also placed substantial pressure on the Wabanaki. This compelled Native communities to devise a new survival strategy.
Making wood splint baskets is perhaps the oldest native 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. 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
Splint 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).
The depletion of game on the reservations became a turning point as the men had to find other means of providing for their families. By the nineteenth century, some had become lumberjacks and worked on the big river drives. Others hired themselves out as guides and untold numbers worked in the lumber mills or in shoe factories.
Since the seventeenth century, the sale of small, decorative items had been a limited source of revenue for Indian women but as interaction with European settlers increased, they developed a new line of native arts and crafts that became a significant source of income for many Indian households. Baskets comprised the greatest percentage of this trade (figure 1).
Figure 1 – Real Photo Post Card (RPPC) of Mi’kmaq chief Noel and his wife. Between them is a display of their baskets. 3.5 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. Circa 1910.
Some Wabanaki became quite nomadic in their pursuit of a living from their crafts while others used Indian middlemen to sell their work. As early as 1827, it was reported that a group of Passamaquoddy’s were camped at the Battery in New York City selling their “domestic manufactures” (Source: American Advocate, July 21, 1827).
In 1833, John W. Johnson, a three year old white settler’s child from Hollis, Maine, was kidnapped by a family of Mi’kmaq. He quickly adopted their lifestyle and spent most of his life among the Wabanaki. In 1861, he published an account of his life as an Indian. His narrative attests to the itinerant life style of many members of the culture he came to embrace (Johnson 1861).
In the winter of 1840 Johnson travelled to Prince Edward Island with his Mi’kmaq family to sell baskets and fancy articles to sailors who docked in the seaside ports. In the summer of 1846 he was on Cape Breton Island for the winter making baskets and fancy boxes decorated with porcupine quills, which his family sold from $1 to $15 each, depending on how elaborately decorated they were. In March of the following year, he managed to obtain passage on a steamer to Boston where he took up residence in a boarding house. On some days he would set up his display of baskets on the Boston Common and offered his wares to anyone who was interested. At other times he sold them by going from house to house. From Boston he travelled to New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts then to Providence, Rhode Island, and eventually to New York, where he disposed of the balance of his stock. And so went his life. When he ran out of inventory he would catch a steamer back to Halifax where he acquired more fancy work from his brethren to sell in the markets he had developed along the east coast. In 1848, he met an Old Town, Maine, Penobscot by the name of Frank Loring or “Big Frank,” aka “Big Thunder” as he was customarily known (figure 2). Loring acted as an agent for a travelling company of Indian entertainers. When John Johnson was in Old Town, he procured some Indian outfits and proceeded to New York where he traveled about for a time with Big Frank, performing in his Indian theatrical group.
Figure 2 – Printed Post Card of Frank Loring, aka “Big Frank” or “Big Thunder,” a Penobscot chief and showman. 5.5 inches high by 3.5 inches wide. Circa 1912. Old Town, Maine.
Perhaps in response to the nineteenth-century timber industry, which brought about a deferential change in the traditional lifestyle of the Penobscot, many Wabanaki were unwilling or unable to settle down as farmers or work in the lumber mills. So a transient lifestyle as entertainers or as artisans, making and selling baskets and other wood derived crafts became a viable alternative.
Resort areas in Vermont and New Hampshire were frequent 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 (figure 3). In this circa 1870 stereoview by C. A. Paul of Skowhegan, Maine, a group of Indians 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.
Other groups of Abenaki were selling their baskets throughout the resort areas in the White Mountains and in Vermont (figure 4). By the end of the nineteenth century,
A few families among the Abenakis of St. Francis still hunted at this time, though game was becoming increasingly scarce. Their principal industry was basket-making and fancy work. They worked at handicrafts all winter and in June most of the families went to sell their wares at various summer resorts in the United States, especially along the Atlantic coast and in the White Mountains (figure 5). Around the turn of the century they lost the long standing privilege of carrying their wares to the United States duty-free and this removed their most profitable market. Around the same time the establishment of a National Park in their area brought about restrictions of hunting and fishing and the Indians had to turn more attention to agriculture (Department of Indian Affairs 1967:20).
Figure 4 – Two printed post cards of a group of Abenakis selling their handicrafts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. 3.5 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. Circa 1910.
Figure 5 – Carte-de-Visite titled: Indian Camp at Franconia (New Hampshire). 4 inches high by 2.5 inches wide. Circa 1860s. Possibly a group of Abenakis. Numerous baskets can be seen on the table.
It’s unclear if the western Abenaki were involved in making and selling souvenir beadwork during the nineteenth century such as bags, hats and what are generally referred to as whimsies. Baskets, birch bark canoe models, bark containers and other wood derived items appear to have been the mainstay of their commoditized crafts. In a rare handbill, pasted to the inside cover of a book on the Abenaki and English language, is an advertisement for the handicrafts that the Abenaki had for sale in the summer of 1893 (figure 6).
Figure 6 – A rare handbill advertising hand-made Abenaki Indian wares in Intervale, New Hampshire. 6 inches high by 4 inches wide. Circa 1893.
Their eastern relatives in Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia did produce beadwork for the souvenir trade as well as for personal use. The beadwork the Wabanaki made for themselves varied over time.
[They] gave their textiles and costumes, in particular, more exuberant ornamentation than other Northeastern groups. It would have distinguished them at formal gathering. For example, Micmacs used a particular T-shaped element; Maliseet double curves often had tightly coiled terminals; Penobscot examples often included a stepped design; and both Penobscot and Passamaquoddy beadwork sometimes used a motif of contiguous lozenges possibly derived from the Ottawa… These ethnic markers would be readily identifiable to the members of many tribes who attended diplomatic gatherings … or the grand council fire (Bourque and Labar 2009:82-83).
Figure 7 – Beaded Bags, Wabanaki type, vase or inverted keyhole shape. Glass beads, black velvet fabric, various materials used for the edge binding. The bag in the center is 6.2 inches high by 5.2 inches wide.
Wabanaki commoditized beadwork had features that varied from those seen on Iroquois work. Beaded bags for instance, were often in the shape of a vase or an inverted keyhole (figure 7), though there are variations to this (figure 8a and 8b). The flowers and leaf patterns on the vase shaped 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 (figure 9). There doesn’t appear to be as many of these bags as the Haudenosaunee examples, perhaps because the Wabanaki were more involved in the basket trade.
Figure 8a – Beaded Bag, Wabanaki type. Glass beads, red wool broadcloth, green silk edge binding. 5.7 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. Second half of the nineteenth century. The bag outline is a variation of the vase or inverted keyhole shape.
Figure 8b – Beaded Bag, Wabanaki type. Glass beads, red wool broadcloth band, red velvet extended top with drawstring, deer hide lining. 6 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. Second half of the nineteenth century.
The leaf patterns on Wabanaki bags are often in the shape of a heart or ovate and usually fully beaded (figure 10). Like the Iroquois, the Wabanaki also incorporated paper patterns upon which their flower and leaf designs were beaded. The main stem of the floral design often rises from the center base of the bag in a flat bundle of beads, each string of which connects to a flower or leaf. These stems occasionally had bi-lobed or tri-lobed buds or ears connected to them (figures 9 & 10). Generally, this style of Wabanaki bag didn’t have a two-bead or zippered edging along the outside.
Figure 9 – Detail view illustrating some of the unique design elements found on Wabanaki beaded bags.
Jennifer Neptune, a Penobscot artist, points out that some of the repeated motifs seen on early souvenir bags were meant to convey a message about the individual or group identity of those who created them.
I see medicine plants in the designs, and it’s obvious to me that people were beading designs of plants that were highly valued to themselves, their families, and their tribe. When I look at the floral designs I see plants that ease childbirth, break fevers, soothe coughs and colds, take away pain, heal cuts, burns, and bruises, and maintain general health.… A hundred years ago plants were the main source of medicine for Natives as well as non-Natives. With the knowledge and importance of these plants in our culture beadworkers needed to look no further than their own backyards for their own floral designs. A hundred years later these same plants are still in our backyards, are still being used for healing, and are still being used to inspire our beadwork designs (Faulkner, Prince & Neptune 1998:41).
A rare and beautiful example of Wabanaki beadwork is a bag with a large sun motif as the focal point of the design (figure 11). This piece incorporates a limited color palette, suggesting an earlier date. The other side of the bag has three symmetrically placed daisy-like flowers with 12 petals, each connected to the center base of the bag by a single string of white beads. Some of the floral elements along the stem and at the top are suggestive of the double-curve motif.
The vast majority of these bags are identified as Maliseet and occasionally they are assigned to the Passamaquoddy or the Mi’kmaq. Rarely is this style clearly attributed to the Penobscot. Images of people wearing vase or inverted keyhole-shaped bags are also quite rare (figure 12).
Figure 12 – Daguerreotype, 3.3 inches high by 2.3 inches wide. Mid 1850s. A young girl with what might be a Wabanaki bag in the inverted keyhole or vase shape.
Two rare examples of a Mi’kmaq bag are illustrated in figure 13. So few of these exist that just a single beadworker may have made them. The contour on one is similar to the Haudenosaunee hexagonal shape, but the sides on this example are curved rather than segmented. The internal designs are also much more symmetrical and curvilinear than those seen on Haudenosaunee work. Both of these bags are beaded onto red wool serge, of the type generally seen on Canadian military uniforms, and the beads on both are strung with horsehair. A similar bag is illustrated in The Micmac Indians of Eastern Canada by Wallace and Wallace, page 82. It’s pictured alongside other articles of traditional Mi’kmaq dress attire, such as beaded trousers, moccasin vamps, epaulets, and women’s caps. Perhaps so few of these exist because they were made for personal use and not to be sold as souvenirs.
A very rare Mi’kmaq bag (figure 14) 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. A mid-nineteenth-century tintype of her in the Nova Scotia Museum is believed to be the earliest portrait of a Mi’kmaq woman by a photographic process (figure 15).
Figure 15 – Tintype of Molly Muise. Mid-nineteenth century. From the collection of the Nova Scotia Museum.
Like the Haudenosaunee, the Wabanaki had favorite venues for selling their work. In a classic turn-of-the-century postcard titled “Indians on the Reservation near Fredericton, New Brunswick” (figure 16) a group of what were likely Maliseet were standing by the edge of the St. John River. The wide panel along the bottom of the woman’s dress was beautifully beaded with floral motifs that are very similar to those on the Wabanaki bag in figure 17.
Fredericton, New Brunswick, was likely one of those centers where beadwork flourished. It was the Provincial capital and would have been a destination for travelers. Located on the St. John’s River, a transportation lifeline on an early fur-trade route, it attracted many people to its fertile shores. For hundreds of years the Maliseet would seasonally hunt, fish and grow corn and squash along its banks. They established a permanent settlement there in 1847. The St. Mary’s Indian Band of Maliseet and the Kingsclear First Nations Band are still located nearby.
On Prince Edward Island, Mi’kmaq basketmakers often travelled to the mainland for their basket material as it was in limited supply locally. The accessibility of beads may account, in part, for the regional development of beadwork. Beading supplies were likely more available in or near the larger cities. For those not willing or able to travel, basketmaking was perhaps a better alternative, especially if basketmaking supplies could be harvested nearby.
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 in Part 1 & 2
Bourque, Bruce J and Labar, Laureen A.
2009 Uncommon Threads: Wabanaki Textiles, Clothing, and Costume. Maine State Museum in association with University of Washington Press. Seattle and London
Department of Indian Affairs
1967 Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development – Indians of Quebec and the Maritime Provinces (An Historical Review). Published by the DIA, Indian Affairs Branch, Ottawa , Canada
Eckstorm, Fannie Hardy
 1980 The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine, published by Robert Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, Maine. Printed by Jordan – Frost Printing Co., Bangor, Maine.
Faulkner, Gretchen Fearon & Prince, Nancy & Sapiel, Jennifer
1998 Beautifully Beaded: Northeastern Native American Beadwork in American Indian Art Magazine, Volume 24, Number 1, Winter edition.
Johnson, John W.
1861 Life of John W. Johnson who was Stolen by the Indians when three years of age, and identified by his father twenty years afterwards. Related by himself. Biddeford, Maine.
1927 Symbolism in Penobscot Art. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. Volume XXIX, Part II. Published by the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.
Wallace, Wilson D. and Wallace, Ruth Sawtell
1955 The Micmac Indians of Eastern Canada – University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
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.
Willoughby, Charles C.
1905 Textile Fabrics of the New England Indians, in American Anthropologist, New Series, Volume 7, F. W. Hodge, Editor, Lancaster, PA.