Abenaki Art as Community Building

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 two of the series. 

Example of Abenaki Garb by Denise Pouliot (Burlington, VT Airport Exhibit, Fall 2019). 

Art is a way to build and maintain the community. Abenaki artist Anne Jennison (2020) spoke about a meeting where artists from around the region gathered and worked on art projects, observed others, and shared stories. She said that meetings like that helped expand the community and also made it more interconnected, as artists from different locations were able to share their work with one another. In this example, the meeting was not only a way to make art and tell stories, but it also allowed for the creation of a space where people could be together.

Anne Jennison working on a hand beaded yoke collar, 2019.

Denise Pouliot (2020), Sag8mosquaw of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, showed the value of sharing knowledge with others and the ability of the community to learn by creating community baskets. Baskets take skill to craft; these skills are shared and passed down through generations. Baskets can be beautiful, displaying the aesthetic choices of the weaver; however, they are also necessary for carrying food and supplies, serving an important function within the community. 

I’ll bring the materials and I’ll start the base and I’ll do the first couple rows and then I’ll leave the basket…as everybody walks by, I teach somebody how to do another row, so that basket is put together a piece at a time by a different person in the community… I could have thirty, forty, fifty people work on that basket. So, the basket’s not mine, it’s a community basket. And I now have thirty, forty, fifty people in the community that can do that same work. So, think of the knowledge base that grew in just that one day from having something sitting on a table for people to walk by just out of simple curiosity.

(Interview with author, February 2020)
Decorated basket by Denise Pouliot.

Sharing and learning becomes the work of a larger community, and that knowledge and the significance of simple interactions are embodied in the physical art itself. Denise also talked about art as a way of improving communication and creating better relationships in a community. In her view,

People are disconnected…. so by doing these traditional crafts, it builds community; it builds understanding; it finds a way where people can learn to communicate together. Instead of coming at each other with a problem, and so you now have your introduction done on a negative level…if you came together over a class on basket making, now you have a greater understanding of that person. They’re no longer your enemy, they’re someone that you can have a conversation with. It’s just a different way of a social being where we depend on each other for learning and for a living.

(Interview with author, February 2020)

Like the example of the community basket, creating art together and sharing practices requires communication. This communication, when occurring over the creation of something meaningful and beautiful, can create a more positive form of communicating and interacting among the participants.

Making art together can also build connections between different generations. Hanson (2015) worked with Indigenous communities in Chile and Canada during the first decade of the 21st century. According to the author, “The findings from th[e] group also demonstrated intergenerational learning as something held with great cultural pride… The women spoke with pride about weaving as the greatest heritage they have from their mother or grandmother and said it defined their sense of culture and pride” (Hanson 2015, 147). Here, art is something that connects people and creates lasting memories embodied in art itself. In Hanson’s (2015) research, Indigenous female participants talked about the skills that had been passed down to them from older generations. One learns much of this through observation and practice, by being around their mothers and elders and picking up the Indigenous knowledge and skills.

Weaving by Mapuche artists in Chile (Photo by Cindy Hanson, 2015).

Art can represent and share Tribal histories and traditions, and different artistic styles show how distinctive each local community is. Art is, literally and figuratively, a fabric that weaves singular and multiple communities together. Like one great community basket, our lives, histories, work, and hands are embodied in each strand, creating our common stories.


Hanson, Cindy. 2015. “It’s a Powerful Thing: Arts-based Community Research on Intergenerational Learning in Indigenous Textiles.” Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education. Pp. 144-148. University of Montreal.