While seeking to rescue from oblivion “one of North America’s most dynamic indigenous textile traditions,” the Maine State Museum exhibition organizers also wished to highlight the current efforts to revive native traditions.
At once historical, cultural, anthropological, and ethnographic, the exhibition Uncommon Threads: Wabanaki Textiles, Clothing and Costume and its accompanying book set out to prove a thesis. By examining Wabanaki costume, including specific styles and decorative ornament, one can, in the words of curators Bruce Bourque and Laureen LaBar, “find information that illuminates their history, their means of communication, and the ways they coped with their rapidly changing world.”
The interpretation of Wabanaki textiles is an ongoing and expanding field of study—and relatively young compared to the research devoted to the material culture of, say, the Navajo, Pueblo or Pacific Northwest peoples. This exhibition at the Maine State Museum in Augusta offers the most comprehensive consideration of the subject to date, covering a little-known and generally overlooked body of materials that offers insight into a remarkable culture.
The show, through September 4, 2010, focuses on objects and images related to the tribes that inhabit the Maritime Peninsula, a land mass situated between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Gulf of Maine. A broad territory, the peninsula was the home of the Wabanaki Confederacy, formed in the eighteenth century, which included four tribes: Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy. With the arrival of the Europeans with their mapmaking and ownership ethos, borders were drawn and the peninsula divided. Today, the area encompasses the Maritime Provinces, southeastern Quebec and Maine.
Uncommon Threads stretches from prehistory to the present and so encompasses pre-Wabanaki materials (Wabanaki is a variant of the earlier term Abenaki, which was sometimes used to designate all tribal populations on the Maritime Peninsula, but was also the name of a tribe that lived in interior Maine on the Kennebec River). The curators settled on a broad definition of textiles. In addition to woven fabrics, they included artifacts “whose structure depends on a supple, fibrous component.”
Among the most unusual displays is a group of five ceremonial slate lance tips, called bayonets, from the Overlock Red Paint cemetery, a four thousand year-old burial site in Warren, Maine. The bayonets were buried with a twined mat or bag, which over time decayed and left “ghost” images on the surface of the stone, offering a glimpse of an early textile pattern.
Bourque and LaBar, respectively chief archaeologist and chief curator of history and decorative arts at the Maine State Museum, note that, broadly defined, “textiles may well have comprised over half of [Wabanaki] material culture.” That the Wabanaki lived in a “woven world” is demonstrated by the variety of objects, including snowshoes, basketry, a tumpline (a “burden strap” to carry objects), lacrosse sticks, wampum, and various twined bags.
The Wabanaki drew on their intimate knowledge of nature to survive the “seasonal round.” They knew flora and fauna and could transform everything from bark and grass to moose hair and sinew into a variety of tools and ornaments, not to mention wigwams and canoes. Their ingenious use of natural materials for decorative ends is highlighted by a number of pieces featuring porcupine quills, including a wallet from around 1785 made by an Abenaki woman known as Mollyockett. The quill work in this piece is exquisite, with a variety of natural white quills alternating with color ones. Colors were produced using various pigments and dyes, many of them plant-based.
At a special tour of the exhibition this past April, curators Bourque and LaBar took turns providing highlights of their research. They underscored the scarcity of materials related to their subject and the many unknowns that remain in confirming attributions and deciphering the social and symbolic underpinnings of the artifacts. They also eagerly shared new discoveries and some of the advances that have been made in interpretation.
Interest in North American ethnographic artifacts is a relatively recent phenomenon, with focused attention starting in the 1980s. A steady stream of objects has entered public collections in the past several decades. “Their origins are indeed varied,” the curators note, “ranging from archeological recoveries to war trophies to tourist souvenirs to flea market finds to scholarly purchases.”
Many changes occurred in Wabanaki textile production after European contact, in particular following the Seven Years War in 1763. While the native artisans maintained their designs and craft ways, they were introduced to many new materials, which they integrated into their clothing and costume.
Broadcloth, for example, became a favorite material for coats, leggings and other habiliment. Broadcloth came to be known in Maine as “annuity cloth” as it was part of a yearly gift to the Wabanaki related to treaties. French and British colonial forces vied for the loyalty of the tribes, which led to gifts of glass beads, silk ribbon and various metals.
Later on, the tribes produced handcrafted goods for sale in the summer coastal colonies. In their new book Indians in Eden, Bunny McBride and Harald E.L. Prins describe the seasonal encampments in Bar Harbor, Maine, that began in the 1860s. Wabanaki peddled baskets and other wares to the island residents and visiting rusticators.
The Wabanaki created some exceptional craft work, several examples of which are included in Uncommon Threads. In adapting traditional skills and styles to this work, the curators note, the artisans “recast their relationship with the Anglo culture.” At the same time, textile production became economically important, supplementing logging, blueberry and potato harvesting, and other livelihoods.
The curators make a distinction between clothing and costume, noting that the former refers to the “inward-directed, protective function of a garment,” while the latter implies a social role, “addressed to the world at large.” While serving utilitarian purposes, much of the Wabanaki clothing had a social/symbolic significance. According to ethnologist Ruth Holmes Whitehead, the elaborate ornamentation that marks some of the clothing provided “an armory of power.”
Wabanaki jewelry is also featured, most notably a number of circular brooches and crescent-shaped gorgets. Many of these pieces were “trade silver,” given to the Indians by colonialists in return for cooperation and good will or for diplomatic purposes. The pendant gorgets had additional political and military significance.
Some of the silver pieces carry the stamp of Montreal artisans who were commissioned by members of the tribes. Several circular brooches feature an outward-facing double-curve motif, a design common among northeastern tribes. The motif, the curators explain, “dominated” decoration among the Wabanaki and coincided with the “exuberant” peak of design in the early 1800s. The native artisans used it in costume decoration, especially in beadwork, and it appears on an array of objects, from bentwood boxes to carved powder horns.
The origin of the double-curve motif remains a mystery. Variations of the design distinguished one tribe from another. The Micmac used a T-shaped element, the Penobscot a stepped design, and so on. These “ethnic markers” were significant during tribal gatherings. “To the trained eye,” write the curators, “Wabanaki costume provided multiple layers of information about the wearer’s position in a complex social world.”
Among the most stunning double-curve designs in the show is found in the decorative designs on a black wool broadcloth coat collected in 1893 from Chief Frank Francis at the Tobique Reserve in New Brunswick. While made by a Micmac woman, the lapels feature Maliseet beadwork marked by tightly coiled double-curve terminals.
Trade silver continued to be an important part of native costume through the nineteenth century, especially among women. The exhibition includes a mid-nineteenth-century photograph of Penobscot Molly Molasses wearing three large circular brooches. Similar ornaments appear in a charming watercolor portrait of a young girl, possibly Denny Soccabason (Sockabasin), the daughter of Francis Joseph Neptune, Governor of the Passamaquoddy, painted in Eastport, Maine, in 1817.
This portrait also features the conical peaked hat commonly worn by Wabanaki women. These wool hats or caps, often decorated with beadwork and ribbon appliqué, may have their origin in traditional Basque headgear brought to the New World by early traders. The exhibition offers several exquisite examples of such headwear displaying intricate edging and designs. Micmac caps are square at the lower margins while Penobscot, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy are curved.
A photograph of Passamaquoddy families gathered in 1901 at Sipayik (today’s Pleasant Point in Perry, Maine) reflects both the decline and maintaining of traditional costume. The men, women and children in the photograph are dressed in shirts, jackets and other contemporary clothing, but they have not abandoned their traditional wear. An elderly woman wears a peaked hat; another figure has adorned herself with circular silver brooches.
While seeking to rescue from oblivion “one of North America’s most dynamic indigenous textile traditions,” the Maine State Museum exhibition organizers also wished to highlight the current efforts to revive native traditions. Acknowledging that basketmaking is the central focus of contemporary Wabanaki artists, they also highlight the increasing interest in beadwork and ribbon appliqué among tribal artisans, as well as the recovery of the lost art of birch bark canoe building.
Planning for Uncommon Threads began in 2000 when the Maine State Museum began reviewing the materials in its collection as well as holdings elsewhere; several grants, including significant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, helped support research and key loans. The show opened to great fanfare in May 2009. Members of Maine tribes wore native costumes in honor of the occasion.
The exhibition builds on the research of many others, most notably, pioneering anthropologists Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and Frank G. Speck and the aforementioned Ruth Holmes Whitehead. The project organizers found further inspiration in the exhibition Sacred Circles: Two Thousand Years of North American Indian Art organized by the Denver Art Museum in 1976. This landmark show offered an array of artifacts from indigenous peoples in North America, with scant attention, however, paid to the Northeastern tribes.
Uncommon Threads objects have come from near and far. The American Museum of Natural History, Colonial Williamsburg, Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnicity at Harvard, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, are among the lenders, along with such local sources as the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor and the Bangor Museum and Center for History. In some cases the objects are so fragile they are represented by replicas made specifically for the exhibition.
Among the stated goals of Uncommon Threads is “to reverse the widespread unfamiliarity in Canada and the United States with the history of the Wabanaki people.” The curators and their fellow researchers are to be applauded for this exceptional effort to bring to daylight a culture and its textile legacy.
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