MELINDA RICE

Native American Festival is Showcase of Wabanaki Art, Culture



MELINDA RICE
A performer at the Native American Festival and Basket Market at College of the Atlantic. The event is sponsored annually by the Abbe Museum.

It’s one thing to look an object of exquisite beauty and be impressed with the talent of its creator. It’s another to be able to meet the artist in person and speak with them about their craft.

It is that ability to meet with Native American basket-makers, and even to watch them weave their magic, that makes a visit to the annual Native American Festival and Basket Market in Bar Harbor, scheduled for Saturday, July 9, such a rare treat.

Aside from pottery or glass there are few human-made objects more closely connected to the natural world from which they originate than baskets. The reeds and strips of wood and bark endure little more than some modest manipulation with the simplest of tools – pounding with another piece of wood, trimming with a small knife, and the occasional soaking in water.

Yet from these basic processes emerge fantastic objects that hold both utilitarian purposes and the ability to impress and inspire the soul.

The one unquantifiable component that makes all the difference? The vision and talent of the hands, and hearts, of their creators.

For thousands of years, the native people of Maine have lived on and traveled to the shores of Mount Desert Island, according to Hannah Whalen of the Abbe Museum, which is sponsoring the festival.

The event runs on the grounds of College of the Atlantic (COA) on Eden Street from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

“After the arrival of Europeans, native people continued to summer on Mount Desert Island, selling their wares to visitors,” Ms. Whalen said. “It is with this spirit that their descendants continue to travel to Mount Desert Island in modern times to participate in the festival.”

According to Ms. Whalen, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who have purchased baskets from similar generations of Native American families, still attend the festival regularly.

The focus of the festival is a market featuring basket-makers, representing all four tribes in Maine, the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot, collectively known as the Wabanaki. Among this group are nationally renowned contemporary and traditional basket-makers who travel to Bar Harbor to sell their work – drawing collectors from across the country.

The festival combines the art and craft market with music, dancing, and demonstrations. Artists selling high quality baskets made from ash and sweetgrass, birch bark, and other traditional materials, as well as jewelry, musical instruments, and other crafts, gather to share their traditions, history, and culture with visitors. Demonstrations include dancing, drumming, flute playing, and basket-making, as well as ash pounding. The strips of ash are then used in baskets.

Parking and public transportation are available, and the grounds of the COA are handicap accessible. Visitors are encouraged to use the Island Explorer bus system that stops at COA. In addition to the festival activities, this year a silent auction will feature works from Wabanaki artists. Proceeds support the non-profit teaching and apprenticeship programs of the Maine Indian Basket-makers Alliance.

The festival began in 1989 at the Abbe Museum, and as it has grown, it has taken place in several locations around town. In 1994, the Maine Indian Basket-makers Alliance and COA joined the Abbe Museum as partners, allowing the festival to grow to include more basket-makers, and to take place on the beautiful campus. The Maine Indian Basket-makers Alliance has since taken a lead role in organizing the Festival, and plays a key role in bringing dozens of new, “next generation” basket-makers and their families to the event.

The Maine Indian Basket-makers Alliance is a nonprofit Native American arts service organization focused on preserving and extending the art of basket-making within Maine’s Native American community. MIBA seeks to preserve the ancient tradition of ash and sweetgrass basket-making among the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes. For more information, visit maineindianbaskets.org.

For more arts & entertainment news, pick up a copy of the Mount Desert Islander.

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.

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