BAR HARBOR — The Abbe Museum’s new exhibit “The Basket Tree” will explore the relationship between the Wabanaki people, the brown ash tree, and the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that poses a threat to the tree. The exhibit opens Monday, Oct. 29 and will be on view until May 2019.
“The Basket Tree” is co-curated by Darren Ranco (Penobscot) of the University of Southern Maine and Jennifer Neptune (Penobscot) of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. It focuses on the work the Wabanaki do to protect the ash tree on and off reservation lands, protecting the tradition and livelihoods of Maine’s Indian basketmakers for generations to come.
Ranco said the ash tree means many things to the Wabanaki.
“There is a story that is shared by the Wabanaki communities here in Maine about Gluskabe, who is our culture hero, shooting an arrow into the ash tree and the people coming out singing and dancing. [This story is] really tied to our understanding of our origins, and our connection to this tree.”
Ranco, who is the Chair of Native American Programs and Acting Chair of Anthropology at U. Maine, calls the ash tree “a cultural keystone species.”
“It’s economic: people make a living with these baskets,” he said. But it’s also cultural — basketmaking is the oldest documented art form in New England — as well as spiritual.
“Baskets [have] bought food, sent kids to school, sent people through college, paid the oil bills,” said Neptune, the exhibit’s co-curator. She is also a master basketmaker and beadworker.
The Wabanaki were traditionally nomadic, following ancient hunting and fishing routes, she said. With the rise of tourism in Maine, travelling to the coast each summer to sell baskets became a way to continue their traditional way of life.
“So it was the ash tree, the basket tree, that allowed us to continue our culture,” she said.
The emerald ash borer is an invasive insect that has destroyed millions of ash trees in 14 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, according to the Wabanaki-led Emerald Ash Borer Task Force. The ash borer has just this year been detected in Maine.
Ranco, a member of the task force, said the group is working on adapting to the invasive insect’s presence “in the short, medium, and long term.”
In the short term, he said the Wabanaki are working with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to combine native knowledge and forestry knowledge to “help locate basket quality brown ash” and contain the infestation. They have also worked with Michigan native basketmakers to understand how to process infested trees.
In the medium term, the task force is developing a new plan for the harvesting and processing of trees before they are killed by infestation.
The long term plan includes finding potential alternative materials. Birch bark and sweetgrass are traditional materials that are still in use, and won’t be affected by the emerald ash borer. Cedar bark and basswood are traditional materials that are being rediscovered, said Neptune. Other basketmakers are turning to new materials such as felted wool, silk fibers, and recycled materials such as newspapers, cardboard, and plastic.
Examples of all these alternative materials will be on display in “The Basket Tree” exhibit.
Finally, the task force has also organized an ash tree seed collection project with native youth, in order to repopulate the ash trees. Ranco said he is not sure when the seeds will be planted, because it will be after the emerald ash borer has moved on. “The seeds are good for fifty to seventy years,” he said.
The task force is also preparing for the possibility of a time in between with no ash trees. “We have also been documenting with video all the steps,” Neptune said, “so if there’s a stretch of time where there is no ash, our future generations will be able to look back at those videos and learn from them.” The documentaries include all the information about the “basket tree” from planting to harvesting, to processing and making the baskets. “So we will leave that behind,” Neptune said. “We’re confident it will never be forgotten, and it will come back at some point.”