By Caitlin Burnett
Through in-depth interviews with several Abenaki artists about their creativity, relationships with traditional skills, and the meaning of their art, it became evident that art plays many different important roles in Abenaki people’s lives, past and present. This series of blog posts will present some of the stories and outcomes of these interviews. This is part one of the series.
In conversations with Anne Jennison, an Abenaki artist and storyteller, I learned that “stories inform art, and art holds the story to be passed on” (Interview with author, March 2020). Art can also represent knowledge of the natural world we learn and share through generations. Making art from natural materials requires knowledge of how, where, and when those materials grow and how, where, and when we should harvest them sustainably.
Plant materials like flax, nettle, hemp, sweetgrass, cattails, and birch bark have been used to make various textiles, while berries, nuts, leaves, and roots can be used for dyes. Each of these plants grows in different ways and in varying seasons, making knowledge of those life cycles important for harvesting natural materials at the right times. Knowledge of the qualities of each plant material is important as well; for instance, older plants have stronger and coarser fibers, while younger plants tend to have softer and thinner fibers, making a very different textile (Bourque & Labar 2009, 46). Materials from animals are also used for textiles, such as hide, sinew, feathers, hair, and quills.
Abenaki artist, Denise Pouliot, Sag8mosquaw of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, talked about how knowledge of the natural world enables her to combine materials in creative ways to make her art:
If I’m going to make a basket out of wood, I don’t… have to cut an ash tree down and pound strips to make a basket. I can just go and grab some branches and just do a rough basket, or even grasses… we use sweetgrass or other tall grasses and we sew baskets with string or sinew and do a coil. When I do a basket like that I can walk the beach and gather a shell and have that be the center portion or the beginning of the basket. So there are different things we can do in our craftwork from different places in the environment where we can combine it all into one artistic form.(Interview with author, February 2020)
Similarly, art is a way of teaching lessons. Some of these lessons are about morals and ways of living, while others are practical tools for survival. I saw the importance of sharing these life lessons in how Denise spoke about holding a demonstration on making nets and teaching a young boy how to make them:
[There was a] big festival where… we went out and portrayed what Indigenous life would have been like. One of the things I had set up for a hands-on activity was a fishing net. During that day, I had a little boy who was probably 6 or 7… and all he wanted to do was learn how to make the net. So I spent probably at least a good hour during different points of the day showing him how to do more on the net, how to finish the net, how to start the net.
So about two years had gone by and I was at another event… Well didn’t that little boy come back with his mom, screaming “oh my god, you’re here!” Nothing but hugs and love and he was so proud that he still makes nets. The mother tells me after our [first] encounter, that boy has made more nets, his entire room, his ceiling is covered with nets, the walls are covered with nets, he hung his teddy bears up by nets… What a difference it made in that child’s life… Who knows what that boy’s going to be when he gets older, but that’s just an amazing thing, to think you can alter someone’s life in that manner and teach a skill. He’ll be able to carry anything he’ll ever need for the rest of his life.(Interview with author, February 2020)
Denise felt proud of being able to teach a young person a skill that he could use for the rest of his life and that both carries on a Tribal tradition and would be helpful if he ever needed to provide food for himself.
Art can also hold deeper meanings about a way of life and can convey beliefs, traditions, interpersonal connections, and more. In Abenaki art, certain symbols are especially meaningful and appear in artwork throughout generations. One of these symbols is the wisdom curl, which appears on many Abenaki textiles and other objects because of its significance (Sheehan 2018, 7). In the words of Denise, the wisdom curl is:
Two half-circles that are joined together, and in the middle is typically a three-petaled flower that would be the side view of a tobacco flower. The meaning behind a wisdom curl is that the two outside rounded edges are the beginning and the end of life and when those circles come together to a point in the center, that depicts the difficulties that we have in life. And the flower that’s at that point is a symbol of prayer and of greater consciousness in life. It is a symbol we call the keepers of wisdom because that’s what life is, we’re the keepers of wisdom throughout our lives; we teach, we learn, and so it’s the symbol of life, it’s a symbol of knowledge, it’s a symbol of tradition, it’s a symbol of survival.(Interview with author, February 2020)
In Indigenous art, the wisdom curl or double curve gained popularity as the use of beadwork rose and quickly became a prominent image in many pieces of art (Bourque and Labar 2009, 82). Tobacco flowers, as mentioned in their relation to wisdom curls, are another important image representing a sacred herb that can symbolize prayer, along with sweetgrass, which is used in many textiles and baskets but also symbolizing “purity, prayer, and good spirit” (Pouliot 2020).
Artwork and artistry can not be reduced to just one function. Individual artists can use artwork as self-reflection, a way of seeking peace, sharing knowledge, teaching moral lessons, and/or telling stories. In turn, Indigenous communities benefit from the living artwork that tells stories and teaches moral, spiritual, and historical lessons.
Bourque, Bruce, and Laureen Labar. 2009. Uncommon Threads: Wabanaki Textiles, Clothing, and Costume. University of Washington Press with the Maine State Museum.
Sheehan, Vera Longtoe. 2018. “Nd’awakananawal Babijigwezijik Wd’elasawawoganol: ‘We Wear the Clothing of Our Ancestors.’” Textile Society of American Symposium Proceedings. University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
Speck, Frank G. 1910. “Some Uses of Birch Bark by our Eastern Indians.” Penn Museum Journal 1(2).