The matriarch of four generations of Passamaquoddy basketweavers, Molly Neptune Parker began weaving baskets at a young age, using the scraps of ash wood that fell to the floor as her mother worked. Today, Parker leads efforts to share this tradition with young people, encouraging the continuance of this art form for generations to come.
Born in Indian Township, Maine, in 1939, Parker is part of a family of basketmakers; her mother, grandmother, and aunts all made baskets. While the men would harvest and pound the ash used for basketmaking, the women in her family would strip the ash and split it into the correct thickness -- fine ash for fancy baskets and thicker ash for work baskets. In the Passamaquoddy tradition, families would have signature designs that were passed down. Parker continues to make baskets with ash flowers fashioned on the top, a design her mother and grandmother used.
Parker is known for her fancy baskets, featuring intricate weaving techniques, such as her signature creation, the acorn-shaped basket. Basketmaking supports her livelihood, and has allowed her to buy a home and help pay for the education of her grandchildren, who are also carrying on this craft. A true tradition bearer, Parker continues her own efforts to preserve the basketmaking tradition among her community in the Passamaquoddy Tribe, including mentoring her grandson George Neptune.
"Basketmaking for me is about innovation and creativity within the context of a traditional art form," says Parker. "The functionality, the materials, and the shapes have been a legacy for each generation. I honor that legacy and believe I have a responsibility to continue it, basing it always on our traditions and knowledge of literally thousands of years. Basketmaking is an art that I believe I was born to do, much as my ancestors have done for thousands of years."
Parker has served as president of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and a master teacher in Maine Art's Commission's traditional arts apprenticeship program, and has demonstrated her craft at the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival as well as local festivals and schools. She is a recipient of Maine Art's Commission Fellowship Award for Traditional Arts, New England Foundation for the Arts Native Arts Award, and First People's Fund's Community Spirit Award.
Baskets by Molly Neptune Parker. Photo by Darel Gabriel Bridges
NEA: Molly, how long have you been weaving baskets?
Molly Neptune Parker: About 66 to 67 years, off and on. More so for the last 40 years.
NEA: How did you learn?
Parker: My mother used to make baskets all the time. Instead of going out to play like other kids, I'd sit there and watch her. Some of the materials that she didn't use I'd pick up and start playing with. I'd fool around with pieces of ash, sweet grass, and stuff like that. As I got older, I got more interested. Then I started using the good materials that my mother had in her little basket. And that's how I actually started.
NEA: What would be considered a good material?
Parker: We get brown ash from the woods. My dad used to pound it with the bottom of an axe to loosen each ring around the tree. And sometimes as he pounded the ash, he could get up to 15 or 20 rings off, loosen them up. And he goes from one end of the log to the other and comes back and forth. That takes a good five to six hours, sometimes seven depending on the size of the ash.
And then once he gets it off the tree my mom would take the strips individually and she would cut them to a width she can handle the best. And then she would start splitting [using] a handmade splitter. Sometimes ash you can split and get four or five pieces from one piece of ash. That's how thin you can split it.
And from ash we go to sweet grass. And then from the sweet grass, we go into braiding the grass just like we do the ash. We just split it and we cut the small pieces into all different sizes and shapes. It's something everybody should learn. Everybody meaning the people that are on the reservation. There are still some people who don't prepare the wood themselves; they usually try to get somebody else to do that for them. But I can do it right from scratch and that's what I teach my children. They can prepare the materials themselves.
NEA: Now this is obviously a tradition that you grew up with on the reservation. What makes a Passamaquoddy basket distinct?
Parker: It's the time that you put into your work and your design [of the] basket. Let's say for the instance the Micmac [tribe], they do a lot of heavy-duty baskets, like potato baskets, all farm baskets, laundry baskets and stuff like that. We do the same thing, but not as much as they do. We're more into fancy baskets like sewing baskets. Years ago everybody used to buy baskets throughout the tribe. Every basket that is made [has] a function. There's no such a thing as just putting it on a shelf and sitting there to be admired. It's usable.
Some of the [baskets] that I have come across are anywhere from the latest ones to about 100 to 200 years old. And they're still in good shape. I just saw my great grandmother's basket and I was amazed.
NEA: When you were a little girl growing up did most people on the reservation know how to make baskets?
Parker: Yes, they did. Both men and women. Men usually tried to stick to just getting the materials and then allow everybody else to do their basket making. They do the pounding. And once in a great while, they will probably make big baskets like laundry baskets, clothes hampers, or picnic baskets. They were more into making oars or making handles for the axe or making hammer handles and stuff like that.
NEA: What was it like growing up on the reservation in Maine?
Parker: I really, really loved it. There were about 14 or 15 houses on the reservation in our section because our reservation is split in seven [sections]. The main reservation is seven miles from where I was raised and brought up. We had a school. There was only one vehicle on the reservation, the bus that would take us up to the school. Or we could go by boat if we wanted to. It was very, very pleasant living there. And we were taught to not only take care of ourselves, but take care of the elders, help the elders as much as we can. So that was my job being the oldest of the girls in my family.
There were seven of us in totalâ€”three boys and four girls. And so my job was to make sure that my mother gets relief from the kids every now and then. My mother taught me how to cook at a very early age. And she taught me how to make baskets at an early age. I even chopped wood, helped my dad as much as I could. I would go to the elders' homes to ask if there was anything I could do for them. I did everything and I enjoyed doing everything at that time because there was nothing else for us to do but to work and help other people.
NEA: Did you grow a lot of your own food at the time?
Parker: Yes, we had a farm. We grew vegetables. At an early age when I was growing up, we didn't have such things as running water or a bathroom facilities. We had outhouses and we had to lug water in from the shore or we had a well. We were busy doing things like that instead of just playing, which was good. If kids today could go through what we went through, I think they would be a lot happier than they are today.
We had to lug water. We had to chop wood. We had to clean. We had bare floors and we had to get on our knees with the brush and wash the floors once a week. And we had to have a big bucket of water. And we washed clothes with a scrubbing brush. Everything we did was hard work but it was enjoyable because there was nothing else for us to do. I mean, either we did it or we were going to be bored doing nothing. So I did everything that I was told to do.
NEA: And Maine winters are long and hard.
Parker: They were cold and hard. I remember waking up every morning and we'd go into the kitchen because the fire went out. To get a drink of water, we'd have to chop through ice in the drinking water bucket. Things are so different today. Everything is too fast. I used to enjoy just doing everything that everybody else did there. And I had never questioned what I had to do. I did it because I knew I had to.
NEA: When you left home, did you leave home to marry or to go to school?
Parker: Yes, we got married. I left home once so I could go to school and I went to Bangor, Maine, to high school for a little while. But my mother was sick, so I had to quit school and go home and help take care of her and my brothers and sisters until she got better again. Then I went to Princeton High School for a while. And then after that, I got married in my early 20s.
NEA: Your husband also comes from a family of basketmakers.
NEA: Yes. My husband was a truck driver, and he'd be busy most of the year. So, the other times of the year when he would get laid off, he'd come home and we'd go and live at his reservation. It was a different reservation than mine and we would do big baskets. You know, the great big huge baskets. Then he and I plus two or three others would do about 100 baskets a week.
NEA: What did you do with them?
Parker: We sold them to fish factories and they used them for fish scales or fish heads and whatever else because they clean them partially on the wharf and then they haul the good stuff away and haul the other stuff to factories to be used for whatever they need it for.
NEA: But the baskets that you were making when you were a kid, those were the fancy baskets?
Parker: Those were the smaller baskets, and my mother always made fancy baskets. Very seldom would she make a picnic basket, and it would be no bigger than probably 24 inches long and maybe about 16 inches wide or something like that. That's the biggest she ever made.
NEA: I could imagine though given everything she had to do with seven children and growing food and keeping the house and everything that making the baskets must have been therapeutic.
Parker: It was. That's how I think of basketmaking because I've always worked on the outside more than I did at home because I had the girls and I had the boys. As time went on I took in foster children. I ended up adopting three children besides my own. I worked in an office for over 30 years. And every day when I would come home, I would dig out my materials and sit down. That's when I can feel myself unwind. It is so, so relaxing when you're sitting down making baskets.
NEA: How many children do you have all together?
Parker: In total ten. Six were natural and four were adopted and they were all beautiful children. And I too started teaching them basketmaking, the ones that were interested. Four daughters can make baskets and two out of the boys make baskets. The youngest boy, he's only ten years old and I started teaching him how to weave.
NEA: And your grandson makes baskets.
Parker: George makes beautiful baskets. He started when he was four. He took up the interest on his own. He asked me if he could sit down to make baskets with me. Before he started school, he started making baskets. And he kept that interest all the time straight through high school, straight through college. And then when he came home, he kept it up. He's a beautiful basketmaker. He creates his own designs. He does the traditional, but adds in something of his own on each basket that he makes. Beautiful work. I do just traditional.
NEA: When you were married you made big baskets with your husband. Were those the first baskets you sold?
Parker: Yes, they were because I didn't want to sell my fancy baskets. I had about a closet full of fancy baskets and I never really thought of selling them. Then I started thinking if I can sell the scale basketsâ€”that's what [the big baskets are] calledâ€”then I can sell these fancy baskets. So, when my husband was transferred to Portland, Maine, to work there, I started to contact different agencies where I can sell baskets at crafts fairs. And that's how I started. I went from one craft fair to the other. That's how I started selling my baskets.
NEA: How did people respond to your baskets?
Parker: They love them. The ones that couldn't afford them usually traded with me for the baskets.
NEA: And you're known for the baskets with the acorns on the top. Talk about those baskets.
Parker: When I first started making those acorns, it was in the early â€˜70s because that was the year when I was trying to save enough money for a down payment on a house. I was living in Bridgeton, Maine, at that time. That was near Portland. And so I found a piece of land in Naples, Maine. But in the process, what I did was I started selling the fancy baskets that I had. Every time I sold a basket, I put that in a different account. Pretty soon I had enough money for a down payment on a home. That's when I started making those acorns. I was very intrigued by the shape. Now I have a little acorn on all my business cards. And I've made them ever since.
NEA: You like the shape of them.
Parker: Yes, and actually I do the same shape for a strawberry basket, but a strawberry basket would have little knots just like a strawberry all the way from bottom right up to the top and on the cover. That one is a double basket because you have to use a flat weaver first and then you have to put those little curls around. The little curls are very, very small from the bottom and you start increasing those. I think my grandson counted them. There's over 400 or 500 little curls on that one strawberry.
NEA: How long does it take you to make that?
Parker: Probably just for the bottom and the rest of the cover maybe about three or four days. But that's after I get my materials ready. That's the worst part of basketmakingâ€”getting the materials ready. Making the basket is actually fun to sit down to make. And you have to have certain kind of material for the certain basket that you're going to make. Some of the baskets that I make, the weaver has to be so thin it's like ribbon, so I can twist it one way and twist it in another way, so I can work with it all the way up to the top.
NEA: Do you treat the wood ever? Do you steam it?
Parker: No. Once it's done, the only thing I do is I usually have a little bowl to dip my fingers in and put my fingers through a piece of ash and that's it. Now it's so nice to work with them, and it's not like some of the stuff you can buy online like reed and stuff like that. Ash is about the best thing you can use for basketmaking.
NEA: Is there a lot of ash in the area?
Parker: No, it's not as plentiful as it used to be because I think people are using it for different things. A lot of people are cutting it for more than basketmaking. And now there's this bug that's attacking the brown ash. It traveled all the way from China. I heard it's as far as Boston. It's like a beetle and once it gets on a tree, it starts working its way through the bark between the bark and the tree itself. You'd be amazed the damage it does to that tree, amazed. And once that beetle gets on that tree, forget it. You can't use it.
NEA: Are you having a hard time finding ash now?
Parker: Right now we are, yes. Some [members] of the Micmac [tribe] can get a lot of wood in their woods. I get a chance to get some from them and they're willing to sell me some materials, so that's who I get my stuff from. And then once in a while somebody from my tribe will come around and sell me a log, so I can get somebody to come over and pound it for me. But it's getting very scarce. I don't know what we'll do, but we'll have to find another source. Maybe cedar, maybe birch bark, or something else.
NEA: You're a master teacher at workshops with apprentices. Tell me about that.
NEA: Well it all started when I first moved onto the reservation back in 1974. At that time there were very few people making baskets. So, I said, hey, well, let me see what I can do. I had a few friends from Indian education that could provide funding for us. So, we decided to open up an area where we can teach people. We taught people how to make baskets, how to prepare materials like ash. I can see myself right now showing the men how to pound. And then after I taught a few of those guys we had some of the ladies in there. I showed them how to prepare materials, not only ash, but sweet grass also. I still had a regular job, and I was doing that part time.
And then it went on from there to us opening up a basket co-op where the organization that put it together hired people to make baskets. We had people doing pounding. We had people that cut up ash and then we had people making the bottoms of the baskets and other people were weaving. It was like an assembly line. And then after that, I started going to some of the different schools and I started teaching some of the children, which I thought was the more important thing to do at the time. I started having one- or two-day workshops and I would show the children the starting of the basket right from cutting ash straight through to doing a basket. And they would do at least the bottom part of the basket; we never have time enough to make a cover. So, we'd end up putting a little handle on their baskets for them to take home to show their parents. And they were so proud when they would complete a basket. Sometimes we'd have two- or three-day workshops. And I'd go from my reservation to the Penobscot tribe, and I was teaching the kids in the Boys and Girls Club. There were only one or two people that made baskets with the Maliseet tribe. So, they asked us through a basketmaker alliance if we could set up workshops for them, which we did. And then we went from there to the other Passamaquoddy reservation and we did the same thing. And once we started doing that, people contacted us and asked us if we could do a workshop. I not only have workshops with the tribes, but I also have workshops in museums.
NEA: Because they don't want to lose the tradition.
Parker: They don't want to lose the tradition. Believe it or not there are more people today making baskets then there were in the â€˜70s. They realize the value of the work, not only for money, but to continue the tradition. They're finally realizing how important it is to carry on the tradition our forefathers started.
NEA: You're making these baskets and then you're getting recognition at different fairs and different festivals. And then the Smithsonian comes around and you're at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and you're given an award from the Maine Arts Commission for traditional arts and the New England Foundation for the Arts gives you the Native Arts Award. And then it's the First People's Fund Community Spirit Award.
Parker: When I first started getting the recognition in doing the baskets, I really didn't think very much of it at the time because I'm not a competitive person. But as time went on I started to think to myself, "Gee, they must like my work because I don't think my work is any more special than somebody else's baskets." But I was grateful to receive all the awards that I got and I have them all at my house. I have a little workshop where I hang up all my awards and I'm so proud of them, really. Not only for me, but for my children and grandchildren because when they saw that I got some of the awards at an earlier stage, they were very, very excited. I think they were more excited than I was. But it meant a lot to me. And it meant I did the right thing in doing what I'm doing today.