Abenaki Art for the Self and as Survivance

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 three of the series. 

Art can be potent medicine. Creating art can be a space for self-reflection and nurturing an individual’s well-being. In our conversations, Abenaki artists Denise Pouliot (Sag8mosquaw of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People) and Anne Jennison (2020) shared that creating pieces of art could be very meditative. It can be an outlet of creative energy, a way of reflecting on oneself, a way to connect with the Creator, or a space to find calm in an otherwise hectic moment.

Beaded mocassins by Anne Jennison (2020).

Denise said,

Making art is a way of self-expression, even if I don’t know exactly what I’m expressing. For me it’s serene, it’s calming, it’s like meditation… when things that are bothering me in the outside world that I may not have an answer or a response for and I need to think about what I need to say, sometimes I’ll go in and I’ll start doing an art project because it clears my mind of what my troubles may be, and while creating something I’ll find the answer I’m seeking… For me it’s a way to balance myself, to take myself back to Creator, back to the earth to realize I’m just a speck on the planet. It’s a very grounding moment for me.

(Interview with author, February 2020)
Basket for jar by Denise Pouliot.

Similarly, Hanson observed that

[I]n both [Chile and Canada], textile work was associated with wellbeing and a way of relieving oneself from stressful things. This was especially noted in relation to gender relations and women commenting about stressful situations with their husbands and how working on textiles was a way to get away from this.

(Hanson 2015, 147)

In this example, creating textiles not only benefits interpersonal relationships by providing an outlet for stress, it also benefits the self by creating personal space and the ability to take one’s mind off an upsetting situation.

Art can also embody survivance: the practice of Indigenous peoples to be active individuals and communities sharing their stories in the world (Vizenor 2008, 11). Survivance is not the same as survival. Indigenous communities have not just survived; they have maintained ways of life, shared stories from generations past to those of now, have resisted systems of oppression, and persisted through the challenges imposed by colonialism while protecting and sharing their cultural heritage. Indigenous peoples are not victims, but communities of vitality and strength. As Chippewa author Gerald Vizenor writes,

Native survivance is an active sense of presence over absence, deracination, and oblivion; survivance is the continuation of stories, not a mere reaction, however pertinent. Survivance is greater than the right of a survivable name. Survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, detractions, obtrusions, the unbearable sentiments of tragedy, and the legacy of victimry.

(Vizenor 2008, 1)

Art represents survivance in several ways. Indigenous communities pass down through generations the stories, practical lessons, and cultural significance carried within both physical artwork and the practice of making it. Making art connects the artist to their ancestors through a common experience, and the act honors those ancestors while also ensuring the knowledge and skills are maintained and passed on (Sheehan 2018, 8). Art becomes a conduit of heritage, carrying important meaning continued to be alive, as learned and shared despite the impact of colonialism and its efforts to erase indigenous identity. Indigenous ways of life, including stories of the past, myths of the origin of all relations, methods of survival, a moral way of living, ideas of beauty, wisdom from ancestors, have survived in and through art.

Art can also exemplify adaptation. Selling different art, such as baskets and other containers, became a mode of income for many Indigenous communities as colonial presence increasingly challenged traditional ways of life. Capitalizing on the interest of settlers in their artwork, Indigenous artists often created artwork that integrated colonial aesthetics, materials, and designs and Indigenous ones. “Souvenir art” became popular in the 19th century, including dolls, clothing, model canoes, and baskets (Bourque & Labar 2009, 112). These changes in artwork show not only the dramatic destructive effects of colonialism but are also practices that show the ability of Indigenous communities to adapt to these external challenges and persist as powerful communities sharing their stories. 

Early 20th century postcards, “Made of Thunder” collection at http://www.gerrybiron.com

Art and its meanings can not be reduced to just one function. The individual artist can use artwork as self-reflection, a way of seeking peace, sharing knowledge, teaching moral lessons, and/or telling stories. For Indigenous communities, art has been survivance, a way of holding on to stories and history, embodying a way of life, and expressing and sharing Indigenous identities. 


Bourque, Bruce, and Laureen Labar. 2009. Uncommon Threads: Wabanaki Textiles, Clothing, and Costume. University of Washington Press with the Maine State Museum.

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.

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. 

Vizenor, Gerald. 2008. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. University of Nebraska Press.