Native Baskets in the Maritimes
Editor's note: In 2001, I wrote an article entitled Baskets of Atlantic Canada for Saltscapes magazine. The following is extracted from that article; if you're interested in more information, you can find the entire article here.
According to a Potawatomi Indian myth, there is an old woman sitting in the moon who spends all her time weaving a basket. When she finishes, the world will end. Fortunately for us, there is also a little dog in the moon who periodically jumps up and spoils the old woman's work, forcing her to start again.
While the weaving of a basket may not determine the fate of the world, baskets do tell a story. In fact, the traditional baskets of the Maritimes are a lesson in history, geography, botany, culture and creativity.
Native Basketry Traditions
When the frost bleaches it, the salt-water grass that grows along Labrador's coast turns delicate shades of white, pink, green and purple. The Inuit pick this grass blade by blade and dry it to make baskets. No one knows how long they have done this, but basket fragments dating back to the 16th century have been found. Moravian missionaries who came to Labrador in 1771 mentioned the baskets in their diaries and exported them throughout the 19th century.
Sea grass baskets are made by sewing bunches of grass into a continuous coil, using split blades of grass as the thread. The only tool used is a needle. If the baskets are sewn tightly enough, they are waterproof. Historically, the Inuit also made hot mats, containers, wall shelves, gun cases, cradles, toys, hats and barrels in the same manner.
The Mi'kmaq have also been making baskets for centuries. Fragments found at a New Brunswick archeological site date back 2500 years. The style of baskets made today dates back to at least the 1700s, when they were produced for the European market.
Mi'kmaq workbaskets (potato, apple, egg, etc.) are woven from ash splints by "plaiting" -- interweaving crosswise and lengthwise splints at right angles. The time-consuming process begins with cutting of a tree. The logs are quartered, the heartwood removed, and the wood squared and pounded or shaved to separate it into the long flexible strips needed for weaving.
The basket bottom is woven first and the splints bent up to make the sides. Sweetgrass or dyed splints are sometimes added for decoration. The top rim of the basket is finished with a hoop laced into place with an ash splint. Handles or a cover may be added. For decorative baskets, the Mi'kmaq use a projecting twisted weave to make patterns such as diamond, porcupine and periwinkle.
Note: Two other traditional basket styles are found in the Maritimes: spruce root baskets which came to Newfoundland's west coast, northern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia's French Shore with early French settlers; and traditional baskets made of red maple brought by black families who came Nova Scotia from the southern United States in the late 1700s. For more information on these basketry styles, see the Saltscapes article referenced above.