Preserving Ties to the Past: Native Artisan Revives Tribal Basketmaking

We live in a world that is growing more and more impersonal; a world that forgets its past at the peril of losing a connection with the bedrock of where it came from. Cultural preservation is an important aspect of maintaining that connection and remaining grounded with who we are as a people. Preservation can take the form of historical research into the past. It also might involve the embrace of an art form by an artist, or the preservation of a craft by an artisan.

In the case of Theresa Secord of Waterville, an artisan and a member of the Penobscot Nation, her contribution to cultural preservation has taken the form of maintaining the vitality of tribal basketmaking. Her involvement came from the realization ten years ago that basketmaking among Native peoples might someday die out without intervention. She knew that the commitment needed to come from a group of artisans bent on preserving their craft. From the genesis of this idea, Secord has become one of the founders and a driving force behind the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance (MIBA). This alliance has been credited with reviving the endangered art of tribal basketmaking in Maine.

Over the last decade, MIBA has seen its membership of trained tribal basketmakers grow from 55 to 120. Not only has membership grown, but there are a growing number of younger basketmakers coming to the craft. MIBA has seen the average age of members decrease from 63 to 43 years of age. As membership has grown and introduced the craft to the younger generations, the alliance has begun programs such as periodic workshops in all five reservation communities in Maine, the sponsoring of a demanding year-long apprenticeship program, annual gatherings and markets for tribal basketmakers and a marketing campaign featuring the Wabanaki Arts Center Gallery in Old Town. MIBA baskets have been featured at a special exhibition in New York City, at the National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institute. Additionally, the alliance has produced a comprehensive tourism guide to native art and culture in Maine.

For these efforts, Secord was honored in October of last year by the Women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF) with a prestigious international prize. On the tenth anniversary of the WWSF prize, Secord became the first United States citizen to receive the “Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life.” The prize was presented to Secord at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland at the Palais Wilson headquarters of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. The award is given in recognition of the role of women working at the grass roots developmental level, who demonstrate creativity, courage and perseverance, while improving rural life.

Secord was one of 33 women from 23 countries to be honored. Of these, she was one of only five attending the award ceremony in Geneva, who were invited to personally present their work.

According to WWSF’s summary of Secord’s accomplishments, the following comment speaks volumes. “It behooves the Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life that the first laureate from the United States be an American Indian of the Penobscot Nation, one of four tribal groups living in Maine.” The commentary goes on to cite Secord’s leadership role in helping to found MIBA, an alliance that many predicted failure for, given the independent mindedness of the tribal groups, not to mention the independence of the individual basketmakers. Despite this, the alliance has been an unqualified success story, of great importance to the empowerment of a group of Native peoples. Due to the dedication and skills of the basketmakers and that of Secord — her vision, persistence, political acumen, as well as first-hand knowledge of the art form — the alliance has blossomed and flourished.

In addition to the international recognition of Secord’s efforts, Keith Ludden, community/traditional arts associate with the Maine Arts Commission has an appreciation for Secord’s role in preserving a Native craft. “Theresa’s work with the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance has had a profound impact, preserving a tradition that creates objects of great beauty as well as helping both Native and non-Native cultures understand the importance and significance of the basketmaking tradition.”

With much of the recognition for Secord coming from her work with MIBA, it might be natural to overlook the fact that she served on the Maine Arts Commission from 1994 to 1996. Secord values her Maine roots and recognizes the regional importance of the arts. Most recently, she was nominated to serve on the board of directors for the New England Foundation for the Arts, as well as receiving a 2003 appointment to serve on the New England Creative Economy Council. With so much attention being focused on Secord due to her award, she is quick to defer to the other members of the alliance. Says Secord, “The award that I received should go to the entire alliance.
The preservation of the tradition is a collective effort, the tireless work of 120 artists with a common vision.” When asked about basketmaking and its future, Secord responded, “It is a great time to be a basketmaker. It is not just our organization. This is a national grassroots movement.”

With the success of MIBA comes the responsibility of continuing the positive energy created by this venture. The alliance will continue with their work to preserve and document the tradition of basketmaking among Maine’s four Native tribes. Efforts are continuing to expand the markets for their baskets throughout Maine and beyond, as well as working towards preserving a viable supply of high-quality brown ash and sweetgrass as materials necessary in the production of the baskets. In addition, the alliance will continue to provide outreach, education and apprenticeships to younger members of the tribes to preserve the sustainability of their craft.

[Freelance article for MaineArts Magazine, Spring 2004.]

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