Abenaki artist receives state grant to teach traditional art form
Liz Charlebois, the education director at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum and an Abenaki artist, sits for a portrait with some of her baskets at the museum in Warner on Monday, December 23, 2013. Charlebois helped bring a grant through the Executive Council that will allow her to train an apprentice in the traditional art of Abenaki basket making.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Liz Charlebois, the education director at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum and an Abenaki artist, helped bring a grant through the Executive Council that will allow for Charlebois to train an apprentice in the traditional art of Abenaki basket making.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Liz Charlebois introduced herself in quick sentences, each one a fact she seemed to set firmly on the table next to the intricate baskets in front of her.
“I am Abenaki,” she said.
She is the education director at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum. She is a basket maker, a master of a celebrated Abenaki tradition.
“So what else do you want to know about me?” she asked.
The state Executive Council has approved a grant for more than $2,300 that will support Charlebois as she trains an apprentice in the traditional art of basket making, a skill she learned with the help of the same grant years ago.
“It’s our heritage,” said Charlebois, 38. “It’s a part of who we are as people, it’s part of who we are as our culture. Baskets are just a really important part of our history, and it would be tragic if this skill disappeared.
“So I’m going to try to do what I can to keep it going.”
The Abenaki people are from what is now New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec. While the tribe is not officially recognized by the state of New Hampshire, four Abenaki tribes have been recognized in Vermont, and Abenaki people live on two Canadian reservations.
Now a resident of Warner, Charlebois grew up in a family that was active in the native community. “Coming up Indian,” she called it.
“I can’t tell you what it’s like to not have it,” Charlebois said.
An undervalued art form
Charlebois began to learn basket making about 12 years ago, when she first apprenticed with an Abenaki woman in Vermont. The pair also received a grant from the state to pay for the ash
splints and sweet grass they would weave into baskets, like the Abenaki who made a living selling to tourists and travelers through the 1800s and into the 1930s.
“Abenaki women would make baskets all winter long, and then they would go to a major tourist area like Lake George, Lake Winnipesaukee, Bar Harbor, Maine,” she said. “They’d go as far south as New Jersey and as far west as Minnesota, Michigan. And then they would set up shop.”
She pointed out a delicate red cowwiss, a small decorative loop on the outside of a basket she made.
The slender circle is repeated all around the outside of the basket, the product of hours of work.
This is characteristic of a “fancy” basket, like those made to sell years ago. Abenaki people would also make utilitarian baskets, which were used for everyday storage.
One of the challenges of preserving this traditional art form, Charlebois said, is selling it like those earlier Abenaki women did.
“Your work is constantly undervalued,” she said.
“It’ll take me countless hours to make a basket, and then someone will want it for $20.”
Charlebois herself didn’t understand her work as art at first. She doesn’t paint or draw, she said, but this work with her hands and her heritage became a deeper form of expression for her.
“A lot of people see it as more of a craft, something you do at Girl Scout camp,” she said. “It’s much more complicated than that.”
Coming out of hiding
Intertwined with that story of Abenaki art, of trade between the native people and settlers from Europe, is the larger story of the tribe in New England.
“It’s the history of our place,” she said.
Darryl Peasley, vice chairman of the state Commission on Native American Affairs, said Abenaki people tried to vanish into the New England population. Their traditional skills began to vanish, too.
“We got really good at hiding,” Charlebois said, her gaze steady.
Today, Peasley said, Abenaki heritage doesn’t have the same mark of taboo. The old arts are coming back. His son has a talent for traditional dancing, he said with pride, and Charlebois’s fingers move “a mile a minute” when she demonstrates basket making at gatherings and pow-wows.
“When my father was a child, it wasn’t a popular thing to admit,” Peasley said. “I grew up knowing I was part Native American, but I didn’t know anything else about it. . . . And today I have four sons, and they are all proud that they have Native American blood in them.”
Charlebois could count the basket makers she knew on one hand when she started learning. That number is growing, she said, and now there are nine or 10 in Vermont and New Hampshire. And she will not let this art die.
“The master basket makers are all starting to teach other people,” she said.
Time to teach
The grant that will fund Charlebois as she teaches the apprentice – her niece Katelyn – is provided by the state Council for the Arts. Sherry Gould, 58, of Warner is also an Abenaki basket maker who has been twice the apprentice and twice the teacher through this grant.
The grant program “gives a very formal and organized way to ensure that this really important art form continues and doesn’t die out,” Gould said. “What we’re seeing here in New Hampshire, we have a pretty vibrant basket-making community developing up, where on the reservations the art is dying out.”
When apprentices like Gould and Charlebois return to the program as masters, council Director Lynn Martin Graton said that cycle fosters the art over years to come.
“Traditions are that way, the aesthetics and what’s beautiful about them is refined over generations,” she said. “And it takes a long-term commitment to preserve them.”
Gould said the grant money usually doesn’t cover all the expenses of travel and supplies necessary to begin basket making, but the structured program requirements support the art form’s traditional tenets.
“You can be assured that when you’re approved through the apprenticeship program, the teacher has demonstrated they learned through traditional methods,” she said. “I think that adds to the whole credibility.”
And as Charlebois teaches her niece through the grant program, she continues to embed the skills of basket making not only in her people, but also in her family.
“It’s going to enlarge our pool of basket makers,” she said.
Still woven into her words was that sense of certainty, of fact. It’s there when she talks about her daughter Ozali, who Charlebois said is already eager to pick up the art. To continue the tradition that was a fact of life for her ancestors, that is a fact of life for her mother.
“You can tell by the way she handles them, the way she talks about them. . . . So it’s really interesting to me that even though she’s only learned a little bit that she has a knowledge, a way of talking about baskets, that you wouldn’t expect an 11-year-old to have,” she said. “So I think it’s time for me to start teaching her.
“She’ll eventually be a basket maker, too.”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)