Theresa Secord

Ash/Sweetgrass Basketmaker and 2016 National Heritage Fellow
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Steve Wewerka

Theresa Secord: Well, the basketmaking is very interesting, in that, it is a community affair. By the time I’ve woven a basket, as many as three or four other people, you know, other Wabanakis may have had a hand in that through the materials gathering, through the processing, and in the early days of the alliance, there was a group of women who would braid the sweet grass for us.

Jo Reed: That’s basketmaker and 2016 National Heritage Fellow Theresa Secord and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.

Theresa Secord is an award-winning ash and sweet grass basket maker and one of the people responsible for bringing this ancient art form into the 21st century.   A member of the Penobscot tribe which part of the larger Wabanaki confederation, Theresa grew up in Portland, Maine—the first of her generation raised off the reservation.  Although her great-grandmother was renowned for her baskets woven from the bark black ash tree and sweet grass, Theresa didn’t learn to weave until she was an adult.  After getting a master’s degree in geology, Theresa returned to the Penobscot reservation and became interested in the traditional cultural art forms of the Wabanaki, learning basketry from an elder Penobscot basketmaker, Madeline Shay.  Theresa was all too aware that basket-making was close to becoming a dying art form.  Determined not to watch this fade into history, she co-founded the Maine Indian Basketmaker’s Alliance—and led the organization for 21 years.  She brought fellow Maine basketmakers together to save their own art and teach a new generation of basketmakers.  The organization affirmed elder basketmakers, re-established an ancient tradition through its young tribal members, and helped culture bearers of all ages realize cultural pride.  Yet Theresa is more than a passionate advocate, she's also an accomplished artist whose work has won first place awards, and has been purchased by collectors and museums throughout the country.  While Theresa imbues her baskets with her own creative vision, they're still based in the traditional forms—in fact, she still uses the basket molds that she inherited from her great-grandmother to shape her art.  An art that was so close to being lost.

Jo Reed: Now your great-grandmother was a basketweaver. Did she pass that on to your mother or to your grandmother?

Theresa Secord: No and that was what was striking when I went to work for my tribe as the staff geologist. In the 1980s, I became aware that the tradition in my family as it had in many families had skipped at least two generations and so I did know my great-grandmother and I watched her making baskets when I visited the reservation because I had strong ties there. Growing up, I went to visit in the summers and my grandparents lived there when I was a kid.

Jo Reed: You must've spent some time thinking about this, why do you think it did skip those two generations, do you think it was your great-grandmother's generation ... thinking you won't need this or your mother or grandmother's generation kind of pushing away or both?

Theresa Secord: Yes, I think both. I think that at one point basketmaking had become associated with poverty and then, you know, the invention of plastic baskets for use had an impact and the economy in general. People had been very interested in baskets and Native American art for a time, you know, sort of this rusticator group of tourists at the coast of Maine for almost 200 years and that had really slowed down in the.. you know, I'd say 1960s and '70s especially.

Jo Reed: What were the baskets traditionally used for?

Theresa Secord: Well traditionally for hunting and fishing and you know, different storage purposes in the olden days and the tribal economy then switched to, you know, I like to say that the Native Americans in Maine were really the first ones to plug into the economy of tourism, which is still Maine's top industry. And so since 1840 people have been selling baskets at the coast and these baskets were made to serve all kinds of purposes, to hold men's collar stays. You know, back in the old days when collars had to be fitted into shirts. To hold napkins in the houses and you'll see in places like in Roosevelt's Campobello home for example, it's full of baskets that are used for wastebaskets and all kinds of purposes in the dining room. Even napkin rings were woven for use and sewing baskets, etc.

Jo Reed: What are the materials traditionally used for the baskets?

Theresa Secord: The materials are ash, from the hardwood tree, the ash tree and sweet grass which is harvested at the coast of Maine.

Jo Reed: And can you walk me through the process of gathering and preparing the materials because I've seen a video of it and literally my jaw was on the ground. That is a lot of work.

Theresa Secord: Right, exactly and that goes back to your question to about why the tradition had really dropped off and dwindled down to just a handful of elderly women, largely carrying on the basket weaving tradition because if basically the men go into the North Woods of Maine which is you know, a pretty harsh environment and search for a suitable ash tree, and it's a very particular type of ash too. The particular species we use brown, or known everywhere else as black ash, is kind of rare, and so then cutting down the tree and you know, dragging the tree home and then you know, the man's son or grandson or nephew may pound the log after the bark is removed with the blunt end of an axe and just.. you know, really bang on the tree for as much as you know, several hours, maybe a half a day, the log has to be painted with ashes and water, to show where the pounding has taken place and then that releases the splints along the growth rings and then we split the ash further down between the growth rings and continue cutting and processing and scraping and you know.. 

Jo Reed: And of course then the sweet grasses need to be gathered as well?

Theresa Secord: Right, and dried, and the sweet grass is only picked in July and August. It's just long enough in July and by the end of August it's really getting brown and so it's a very short season and it has to be dried and bundled and then the basketmakers braid it before weaving it into the baskets and so again, that's another issue with access and, invasive species affect, harvesting areas and you know, so you can see where this became very hard work for the few elder basketmakers that were carrying on the tradition when I was introduced to it in the 1980s.

Jo Reed: Well that leads so nicely to my next question, which is you have a graduate degree in geology, how did you come to basketmaking?

Theresa Secord: Correct. Well, it was a very interesting time for – especially the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes in Maine - we had a large land and monetary settlement from the state of Maine and the United States government right around 1980, and right after that time around 1984, I was finishing up a Master's degree in geology and for that two or three-year period , the tribes had been – our tribe in particular – had been calling everyone who had a degree in natural resources especially because we together with the Passamaquoddy tribe had reacquired 300,000 acres of Maine land, mostly woodland. And so foresters, geologists, attorneys, and the tribe invited me to come back home and work as the staff geologist. So the tribes at this point had acquired, a significant land base back and wanted to do all the work themselves, and so we had a big mineral assessment program that went on for several years, but all the while I had been distracted by the basketmakers and the culture and actually met my teacher while I was studying the Penobscot language. Sadly, my teacher Madeline Shay, who is a great basketmaker that I was able to work with for five years, later would become known as the last person born speaking the Penobscot language.

Jo Reed: And she taught it to you? Was she your teacher for language as well?

Theresa Secord: She was and that's how I first met her by just being interested in taking language classes, but it soon became clear that I was a much better basketry student than a language student. It's undergoing a bit of a revival now, but at that time, almost 30 years ago, there were so few people to practice with. You know, it’s a very difficult thing to bring a language back from the brink, but she was the person who also inspired me to help form the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and save the basketry because she was watching both aspects of our culture decline in a really precipitous way.

Jo Reed: How did she teach you? What was her method for imparting this to you?

Theresa Secord: Well it was very traditional in that, first, you know, I'd just watch her weaving her baskets. She could see I was interested but again we were working on language and there were a couple of language students, probably two or three, and after a while she would invite us to start helping prepare the materials, how were we at braiding, you know, she was very clever that way and I'm working on that with my niece now, "How would you like to braid some sweet grass for me," which is really a pretty big job and so she could see it was very appealing to me. She was a great basketweaver. Her baskets were aesthetically pleasing and beautiful and she had been a younger friend of my great-grandmothers and so she would start to share stories about my great-grandmother, even though I knew her, my great-grandmother, Filamin they called her, Filamin Salas Nelson, she didn't pass away until I was about 21. You know, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to weave with her, and so finally Madeline started inviting me to try a little weaving and I picked it up right away, but the teaching method was very traditional in that she would just basically have me watch with very little verbal instruction. And then she would look at what I had done and, take it apart, back it up several rows where I had made the mistake without even saying anything while I was doing it, you know, she would demonstrate and then hand it back to me, like, "Do it the right way." And we became so close that I worked way beyond the classes. I was living and working on the reservation at the time so I had close proximity to her.

Jo Reed: And what year was this, I don't mean to interrupt, around when?

Theresa Secord: Oh sure, now this, 1988 to 1993, and so what was happening was you know, I would take her and her husband to... on errands, you know, to the post office. They didn't drive, they didn't have a vehicle. So I would do that, take them to the bank or a mall, in exchange for lessons, and help around the house.

Jo Reed: Do you remember the first basket you made?

Theresa Secord: I do, I do, yeah. It was called a little button box.

Jo Reed: And how big, more information please?

Theresa Secord: It was pretty small. It was about the size of a teacup and you know, it had a cover and I did weave it on one of her wooden forms and then soon after that I received the wooden forms, antique wooden forms that my great-grandmother had used through one of our relatives.

Jo Reed: We've said that most of the basketmakers in Maine at that time were older and you said that they were in great decline. Do you have a sense of how many basketmakers there were at that time?

Theresa Secord: Yes, we actually, did some statistics when we formed the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance in 1993. We counted about 55 founding members whose average age was around 63.

Jo Reed: What were the goals of the alliance?

Theresa Secord: Well, the goals were to, you know, save this disappearing art form; that was the mission, and so the goals supporting that were to of course, you know, help bring forward a new generation by teaching them, the steps involved in the whole weaving process from start to finish. So supporting those goals were workshops, traditionalized apprenticeships, and also the marketing. The tribal basketmakers had been marketing in Maine for nearly 200 years and that was always an important piece. And I guess I wanted to back up too and note, that the very first meetings of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance grew out of efforts by my friend Kathleen Mundell, who was the folklorist at the Maine Arts Commission to bring together the weavers. And Kathleen Mundell had also through the Maine Arts Commission been running a traditional arts apprenticeship program with NEA support. So, you know, it’s interesting, you know in my whole trajectory, even the very earliest meetings of the Maine Indian Basketmaker’s Alliance and the effort that we grew out of came from NEA-supported work in Maine.

Jo Reed: It was money well-invested.

Theresa Secord: <laughs>

Jo Reed: Did you find that as you formed the alliance and began apprenticeship programs and you know, outreach and marketing, that people in the tribe became responsive, especially younger people?

Theresa Secord: Yeah, it was really a great time, but you know what was interesting in the very beginning, it wasn't young, young people, it was more like, you know, people my age, in their '30s and '40s, who were first, quite interested. And they later would be the parents of the new generation of basketmakers who are now, kind of the leaders in terms of the weaving members of the group.

Jo Reed: I would like you to talk about a fine line I would think you'd have to walk because on one hand you're upholding this very old and honored tradition of basketmaking, but at the same time, you're also bringing your own sense of creativity to it?

Theresa Secord: Right. It's been, you know, an interesting process to even watch the tradition evolve and in the very beginning, I guess, I kind of assumed that there would be women, who would take to the tradition and carry this forward. But, what became interesting was, because there's still, so many male practitioners in this weaving art form, which I find in my travels around the country, is a bit rare in other tribes. Then I think maybe it just has to do with, the hunting and fishing baskets. The bigger baskets are still made by men, but what began happening was the... some... you know, a number of young men started becoming interested in weaving and also supplying the rest of the group with the ash weaving material. In the past, a number of older ladies weaving these fine, delicate baskets, so it just became interesting to see these men come forward in our group, you know, over a decade or more and start making these, stronger but still the artistic-looking basketry pieces which were commanding the higher prices as well. And so there was a lot there at the time that the elders in the group had to absorb. Always in the past a young basketmaker or apprentice would never charge a higher price than their master basketmaker. You kind of had to fit in this economic structure that had existed for generations as well, but they couldn't afford to charge these low, low prices or these, you know, younger basketmakers, they wouldn't be able to, even afford to take a weekend to go into the woods to find the ash and weave if they couldn't earn some decent money at selling the baskets. So there was a lot of tension there as the styles started to change and as men became more involved in making what were termed "Fancy baskets," which now, you know, we refer to more as, "Artistic pieces". It was a very interesting time. 

Jo Reed: What about in your own work, Theresa, the basketry that you do. I'm looking at pictures of them and they're very different, they're beautiful. I'm struck not just by the design, the breadth of different sorts of baskets, but the colors?

Theresa Secord: Well, my own work has of course evolved as well and is continuing to evolve as we speak. I was very traditional in the beginning and it looked very much like my teacher's work, which I think is,you know, what we all strive to do as students. You know, and I still think my baskets look very much like my great-grandmother's baskets and my teacher's baskets because again I'm using my great-grandmother's wooden forms and all of her tools, but I have introduced a new material in the last few years and it is cedar bark and what's kind of interesting, the tribes here have used cedar bark in weaving in the past. I did find this out through some research at the National Museum of the American Indian and I kind of found this missing link, but I had been handed some cedar bark from some of my friendships and networking with other western tribes who.. especially northwest coast tribes who weave with yellow and red cedar bark. So that's where I've been getting some inspiration and I like the aesthetic and the texture that you can get by adding this third material and there's an aromatherapy going on too that's really pretty fantastic when you're weaving, with cedar bark, ash and sweet grass together. And I guess the final thing about my baskets as well is that I wanted to introduce this new material to try to share it with other weavers in our group, how we need to be conserving the ash, that it's severely threatened by the emerald ash borer beetle which either northeastern and Midwestern tribes have been really struggling against.

Jo Reed: What about the colors you use?

Theresa Secord: Well, I do use a variety of natural dyes but more recently I've gone back to commercial dye, but those are usually just like kind of pops of color on, this combination of the ash and sweet grass and cedar bark which in and of itself provide you know, a nice color variation and aesthetic.

Jo Reed: Why do you think a new generation has been inspired to learn traditional arts in culture?

Theresa Secord: Well I think it's like really a way for people to still assert their sovereignty and their, a connection with their cultural heritage. In terms of material aspects of the Wabanaki culture, we were well known and long known for our basketry. Certainly, those of us who we've fairly proficiently today, we're not the first. You know, we can look in the historic record and see these amazing baskets that our ancestors wove, 100, 200 years ago and so I think you know, that our kids and our grandkids really want to be a part of that longstanding heritage and they're proud of that tradition. And I think it relates to you know, all of the young people going to support the Standing Rock Sioux and the pipeline effort there in that, they want to belong to this joint, you know, cultural movement and of course that as well has to do with protecting the environment and I don't know, I think for us as weavers, that helps make us quintessential Wabanaki.

Jo Reed: You have seen over the past couple of decades basketmaking that had once been viewed as a craft, now being recognized as an art. This is like a two-part question, what do you think accounts for that transition and what does it mean for basketmakers and tradition bearers in general?

Theresa Secord: I think it's very healthy. I think we've been really fortunate to have this next generation of weavers, who are now in their '20s and '30s, who basically grew up as teenagers and even, toddlers, hanging around the workshops and finally becoming apprentices and now several are winning, national awards have won United States Artists Fellowship and the top prizes and the largest juried Indian art markets in the world and I just think we're very fortunate to have some really highly-skilled artists among our group and I think it had to happen, for them to take the art and make new designs, new shapes, and symbology and weaving styles and even, there were basketmakers in our group who were sitting down and weaving baskets that take four months to weave and that really was unheard of when we helped revive the tradition,  because the prices had dropped so low that people were just hurrying up to make a basket, you know, to pay an electric bill or buy gas in their car, so having had it evolve to an art form allowed the next generation to actually earn a living at it and probably carry this art form and tradition forward and they had to evolve it into their own designs and the prices are very much reflecting that hard work and months of effort. A friend of mine sold a basket last month in the Santa Fe Indian Market for right around 25,000 dollars for an individual basket, and that would be the highest price ever commanded for a Wabanaki basket. That's something I think we're all extraordinarily proud of.

Jo Reed: How does basketmaking connect the Wabanaki community?

Theresa Secord: Well the basketmaking is very interesting in that it is a community affair. I really couldn't live in Boston and be a basketmaker. I depend upon, someone from currently now who is Micmac, who goes into the woods and his son helps him gather the ash and prepare the wood. Yesterday I actually just received a shipment of sweet grass from a 75-year-old Passamaquoddy friend, so trading and bartering and purchasing the raw materials from other basketweavers who have always been a part of this cottage industry. It's really also, very early, Maine cottage industry, where people, help supply each other with the raw materials. And what I love about it too is by the time I've woven a basket, as many as three or four other people, you know, other Wabanakis may have had a hand in that through the materials gathering, through the processing and in the early days of the alliance there was a group of women who would braid the sweet grass for us and sell it to us by the yard after it was already pre-braided and now that's virtually disappeared. But you know, it connects people through our events as well where the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance holds four annual events. We just had our 23rd Native American festival in Basketmakers Market in Bar Harbor which is a historic place where, since 1840, basketmakers have been going to summer and sell baskets at the coast and you know, sort of very much a celebratory summer event for the artists and the tradition bearers of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and that's a great social time where people come together and see each other and share, as well as interacting with the public. So I think it's it really helps keep, you know, forgive the pun, you know, keep the communities, fairly woven together and in Maine a lot of the tribal artists live on the reservations and so it is a community affair, you know, that people still come together and make art and do other cultural practices together.

Jo Reed: You've been honored and given many awards, and now a National Heritage Fellowship. Tell me what the National Heritage Fellowship means to you and what do you think it could mean to your community of basketmakers?

Theresa Secord: Well, there's just so many things there. Of course many people, and especially in Maine, there are a number of non-profits in Maine and many people at these small non-profits, you know, work like I did, really hard for a couple of decades at something that's very important and part of the heritage and the fabric of Maine and not everyone gets recognized, so I feel so fortunate in that way and I feel proud that other younger basketmakers can see that something that they've been a part of too as well as the teachers and the traditionalized apprenticeship program, who worked with me and who helped teach the next generation, also I think can celebrate because it's important to be a part of an art form that's validated outside of Maine as well. And so the fact that the National Endowment for the Arts recognizes this as of such import that they would, you know, recognize the director and me as an artist, is just really, really big and I think it's great for everyone. I think the only other thing I would say too, an answer to that question is I guess for myself, myself as an artist, I felt so proud, because lately, and it’s interesting, you know, with the contemporary movement and mainstream art as well, certainly in Native American art, you know, 'cause I still exhibit and market and enter juried competitions with my art and sometimes it'll be, "Oh, you know, that work is interesting, but it looks very traditional. We're looking for something more cutting edge and more contemporary," and even losing out to, you know, next-generation basketmakers who are making, really interesting and newer looking and more exciting and cutting edge style basketry. I mean, I just feel so fortunate and honored to be recognized, for, still doing very important work, that it's good work and traditional is still very important and of course the NEA recognizes that and it's really a great thing that they do.

Jo Reed: Well Theresa, thank you and congratulations again. Your work is spectacularly gorgeous.

Theresa Secord: Thank you as well.

That’s basketmaker and 2016 NEA Heritage Fellow Theresa Secord. You can meet Theresa and the other 2016 National Heritage Fellows on Friday, September 30 at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC at the National Heritage Fellowship concert. The curtain goes up at 8 pm. It’s free and open to the public. And if you can’t make it to Washington, be sure to watch the live webcast. For more information about the concert and the webcast, go to arts.gov.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening

Bringing an ancient art form into the 21st century.