Home - The Human Side of Lake Saint-Pierre

Virtual Museum of Canada

Lake Saint-Pierre

Abenaki basket weaving

In the early 18th century, the Abenaki settled on the shore of the Saint-François River, where they founded the village of Odanak. This community subsisted by hunting, fishing, gathering berries and practising agriculture. Both men and women would weave baskets out of ash and sweetgrass. Today, Abenaki elders proudly pass on their traditional techniques to younger generations, ensuring the continuity of the art of Abenaki basket weaving.

Abundant vegetation on the banks of the Saint-François River
View of the Saint-François River near the Tolba Trail in Odanak

For more information (in French only): Virtual Exhibit La vannerie abénakise : d'hier à aujourd'hui

First, a black ash tree is felled and the bark removed. Then, the men pound the trunk with the back of their hatchets to separate the annual growth rings. Black ash is used because it is the only tree whose wood will separate in this way. The trunk must be humid, as this makes the wood more flexible and less likely to crack.

Two men use hatchets to pound on a black ash trunk and separate the annual growth rings; taken in the 1960s.
In front of the Catholic church in Odanak, Jean-Marie Msadoques and Alexandre R. O'bomsawin pound on a black ash trunk with the back of their hatchets to separate the annual growth rings. Photograph taken in the 1960s.

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Once the rings have been separated, a cleaver is used to detach the splints, which are then finished using various instruments. The splints are planed to make them thinner, softer and more flexible without compromising their strength.

A man detaches splints from a black ash trunk; taken in the 1960s.
Alexandre R. O'bomsawin in the 1960s

The Abenaki originally made baskets for purely utilitarian purposes. Starting around 1870, basket weaving became a local industry that persisted for seven decades.

Treetops and flight of Canada Geese in a V formation over Odanak
Flight of Canada Geese over Odanak

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From the late 19th century until the 1940s, Abenaki families would travel to resort areas in the United States to sell their wares. The many tourists that visited these locations represented a substantial market, which could bring in considerable revenue. The wide availability of plastics after World War II had a very negative impact on sales of traditional ash baskets.

A man behind his basket stand in Massachusetts, circa 1930
Basket stand run by the family of Jules Robert-O'bomsawin in Northampton, Massachusetts, circa 1930
A man in front of his counter of Abenaki baskets and souvenirs, circa 1931
Alexandre Nolett in front of a counter of Abenaki baskets and souvenirs in Ogunquit, Maine, circa 1931

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Young woman weaving a basket at an Indian souvenir stand, circa 1935.
Dora O'bomsawin, a young basket weaver, weaves a basket at an Indian souvenir stand owned by Adélaïde Masta in Asbury, New Jersey, circa 1935.
A woman at the counter of a store well-stocked with baskets; taken in the 1930s
Marie-Anne Portneuf serves clients at the counter of a store well-stocked with baskets; taken in the 1930s.

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Annette Nolett teaches her two granddaughters basic Abenaki basket weaving techniques. This attentive grandmother lovingly supervises their work.

A woman and her two granddaughters weaving baskets.
(left to right) Angelica Duane, Annette Nolett and Alice Thompson

To make a basket, the thin strips of ash need to be moistened slightly to make them more flexible and easier to work with.

A woman standing behind a table and waving a basket.

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Ash strips and ribbons can be dyed in a wide range of colours, adding a touch of whimsy to the objects produced. Thinner ribbons of ash are used to bind the thicker strips.

Close-up of a basket weaver's hands as she makes a basket.

First, the weaver makes the base of the basket; then, strips are woven up to the top of the basket.

A woman sitting behind a table and waving a basket.

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Each basket weaver has her own style and adds her own personal touches. Annette likes to add braids of sweetgrass to her crafts, while her granddaughter Angelica often includes motifs inspired by nature: flowers, butterflies and dragonflies.

Various baskets with motifs inspired by nature

Some baskets are ornamented with a woven sweetgrass handle and raised points that recall the spines of a porcupine. The points are created by folding an ash strip over itself.

Ash baskets of various shapes and sizes

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Basket weavers use ash strips of various sizes, as well as molds, tools and sweetgrass, to produce their crafts.

Basket weaving materials and tools

Angelica Duane tells how she began to practice basket weaving a few years ago as a way to spend more time with her grandmother. By sharing this tradition with her two granddaughters, Annette Nolett is helping to ensure this ancestral art continues to be practised in the Abenaki community of Odanak.

A woman and her two granddaughters present their basket weaving  materials and tools.
(left to right) Angelica Duane, Annette Nolett and Alice Thompson

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Baskets of all shapes and sizes are the most frequently produced craft, but the weavers also make woven bookmarks and even pincushions with a woven ash base.

A woman presents the baskets she has woven.

This photograph shows gauges lying on top of basket moulds. The blade of the gauge is used to divide splints into thinner strips, while the moulds are used to shape the baskets. These hand-made tools were invented by the Aboriginal peoples of North America.

Gauges and moulds used in basket weaving.

Today, Abenaki woven crafts are considered true works of art and are much sought-after by collectors.

Monarch butterfly foraging on a Jerusalem artichoke flower.
Monarch butterfly foraging on a Jerusalem artichoke flower near the Tolba Trail in Odanak.

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