"Its rim was with tender young roots woven round,
Like a pattern of wicker-work rare,
And it pressed on the waves, with as lightsome a bound,
As a basket suspended in air."
["An Ode to a Bark Indian Canoe", Casket , 25 September 1852]
Comments: This fan was found in the walls of a house at 44 St. Mary's Street, Antigonish, which was built in 1875. The fan is probably made of ash. Sweet-grass is braided into the woodsplints as simple decoration. The sweet-grass on the handle of the fan is wrapped with twine in two places, indicative of a repair. The fan is stained with soot, suggesting that it could have been used to fan a fading fire. More than likely it was originally a novelty item, typical of a wide range of fancy items produced by native artists for the Maritime tourist trade. The fan is regarded as a rare find and is currently the most valuable piece in the Antigonish Museum's Mi'kmaq collection. It bears a striking resemblance to a similar circular sweet-grass and woodsplint fan featured in the Nova Scotia Museum's Mi'kmaq Portraits Collection. There are no marks identifying the person who manufactured this fan. However, its skilful simplicity reveals a craftsperson with nimble fingers and an innate sense of artistry.
The fan is part of a long native tradition of working with natural fibres. Sources dating back to the 17th century refer to the Mi'kmaq working with reeds, rushes, roots and bark. Archaeological digs have yielded fragments of woven rush matting and woven cedar bark employing the checker, twill and wicker weaves, all of which are regarded as standard basket weaves. Such evidence challenges the theory that basketry was introduced to North America by Swedish and German settlers in the Delaware River Valley. By the late 18th century, the Mi'kmaq were widely known for their splint baskets fashioned from cedar, ash and maple and beautifully stained with natural dyes. In the mid-19th century, the ash-splint basket industry enjoyed an established trade, stimulated in part by the demand for rugged baskets for harvesting the New Brunswick and Maine potato crops and by the growing tourist trade. Native people adapted quickly to the market demand and produced fancy baskets and novelty items such as fans, lamp shades and flowers. They catered to Victorian tastes with commercial aniline dyes and decorative weaves such as the "standard diamond", "porcupine" and "periwinkle". In their heyday, many native communities produced at least 100 different categories of baskets. By the 20th century, native basketry encountered several serious challenges, most notably the decline in supplies of white birch and brown ash and the mechanization of potato harvesting.
Comments: This large basket is fashioned from rock maple wood. It is woven in a checkerboard pattern with overlapping undyed splints bent and reworked into the main design. It has a square base with curved sides and a rounded square top reinforced by a wooden hoop securely bonded to the basket by a thin splint whipstitched along the edge. There are also two hand-carved wooden handles protruding from the top which run the entire length of the basket, with the ends woven skilfully into the overall design.
This basket is just one example of the vibrant Mi'kmaq basketry tradition. From the 1850s to the 1920s, Mi'kmaq artists produced a wide range of baskets such as potato, apple, picnic, egg and berry baskets as well as scissor cases, sewing baskets and hat baskets. The work ran the gamut from utilitarian to fancy, and found a ready market with summer tourists. Many of these baskets were produced out of economic necessity and provided native people with cash income; oftentimes such handwork was traded for food supplies. It is interesting to note that basket weaving involved some division of labour. The men traditionally prepared the basketry splints while both men and women were basket makers. Children were introduced to the tradition at a young age.
Unfortunately, there are no identifying marks on the basket to suggest by whom or when this basket was created. It was donated to the Antigonish Heritage Museum by Ernest McNaughton, one-time employee of Wilkie and Cunningham.
Mary Jane Paulette