By Julia Clark, Curator of Collections
The Passamaquoddy communities of eastern Maine are the home of some of the finest Wabanaki basketmakers, and the tradition is often carried on by women in extended families. Six women of the Mitchell and Gabriel families from Indian Township have shared and passed along these traditions. Perhaps the best known basketmaker in the family was Mary Mitchell Gabriel (1908-2004), who was first Maine Native American to receive the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1994. The Abbe Museum has more than 30 of Mary’s baskets in out permanent collection.
Mary Gabriel was born in 1908 on the Passamaquoddy Reservation in Indian Township, and learned to make baskets at age seven from her grandmother. The family tradition of basketmaking also was passed along to Mary Gabriel’s sisters Doris Chapman and the late Delia Mitchell (1916-2009).
Mrs. Gabriel taught her three daughters to make baskets. Sylvia Gabriel (1929-2003) and Clare Gabriel learned basketmaking from their mother when they were children. Deborah Brooks began learning basketmaking from her in 1994. While each has developed her own distinctive styles, Mary Gabriel’s daughters have excelled at the superb basketmaking artistry taught to them by their mother.
Not only have these talented women shared the tradition of ash and sweetgrass basketmaking with sisters and daughters, five of the women served as masters in the Maine Arts Commission Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program, teaching many more new apprentice basketmakers the art form. Mary’s daughter Deborah worked with the Abbe Museum to make a film documenting the process of making an ash and sweetgrass sewing basket from beginning to end. The legacy of this family of remarkable women will be felt for a long time to come in the Wabanaki basketmaking community.
Deborah Gabriel Brooks’s web site:
Two films about the Gabriel women and basketmaking:
“Basket Weaving: Deborah Gabriel Brooks” was produced for the Abbe by Dobbs Productions of Bar Harbor.
“Gabriel Women: Passamaquoddy Basketmakers” focuses on the work of Mary, Sylvia and Clare Gabriel. It was produced by the Center for the Study of Lives at the University of Southern Maine.
Image 2. Debbie Brooks
Image 3. Clare Gabriel, 1996
Image 4. Sylvia Gabriel, 1998
Image 5. Debbie Brooks, 2002.
Image 6. Mary Gabriel,1994.
Image 7. Mary Gabriel, 1993.