INDIAN ISLAND (AP) – Penobscot artist Barbara Francis learned the art of basketmaking at home in Maine, and she weaves her baskets at home, too, with brown ash harvested in Maine.

But when it’s time to show and to sell her work, Francis heads out West, where collectors will pay twice as much for American Indian arts and crafts.

“I get $75 for a vase here in Maine that I get $150 for in Santa Fe,” Francis, 46, said recently in the living room of the little house where she grew up.

Indian artists all over the East Coast agree: for historical, cultural, and even political reasons, when buyers and collectors think of Indian art, they think of turquoise and silver from the West, not the traditional beadwork and birchbark basketry made by Indians from the East.

Several individuals and groups are working to change that. Some are working to preserve and promote the arts and culture of their people. Others turn outward, believing that if non-Indians learn more about the people who lived in the Northeast before European settlers arrived, the region’s native people will be more likely to succeed.

Jeanne Brink, a traditional Abenaki basket maker who lives in Barre, Vt., is part of both efforts. She’s helped start a gathering of elders to teach young people traditional crafts.

Through the Vermont Council on the Humanities, Brink also teaches in schools, libraries and colleges about Abenaki history, culture, and dance. People need to know about the Abenaki before they will recognize the value of Abenaki art, Brink said.

“There’s been so much media attention on the native people from the West or the Plains,” Brink said. “One of the big things in schools we’ve been trying to do is to get the schools to focus on the Native Americans that are right here in their own state, on the Abenaki.”

According to the 2000 census, 6,500 people in Vermont, 13,000 people in Maine, and 8,000 people in New Hampshire identified themselves as at least partly Native American.

One reason the eastern Native Americans are less well known is the difficulty tribes in the region have had winning official recognition from state and federal governments. Four tribes – the Penobscot, Micmac, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy – are federally recognized in Maine. Despite years of trying, others have failed. They include the western Abenaki in Vermont and New Hampshire and the eastern Abenaki in Maine.

“This area of New England has a particularly dark history of eradicating local Native American culture, and eradicating the history and erasing the memory from Abenaki people themselves,” said Barbara Thompson, the curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American collections at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. “There was quite a bit of racial genocide going on, and this is the result of it.”

Stephanie Morgan is executive director of Gedakina, a new non-profit in Woodstock, Vt., that promotes traditional arts both to help Indians earn a living and to educate non-Indians.

“A lot of people think native people don’t live here,” Morgan said. They do. But as regular people with ordinary jobs, Indians often don’t fit the images non-Indians learned as schoolchildren.

“When people know someone’s native and he walks in with jeans and a regular shirt, there’s disappointment,” said Morgan, 33. “We want to hold them in the past.”

Rick Pouliot, Morgan’s partner, helped her start Gedakina (“Our World” in Abenaki) in 2002.

“I was raised in Worcester, Mass., and in my public school, it was always talked about that there were no First Nations people in New England anymore; they had all been killed off or had left,” Pouliot said.

There are good reasons for that, said Charlie True of Whitefield, N.H., who started the Abenaki Nation of New Hampshire in 1996. Abenaki people – and other native groups – had to hide to avoid prejudice.

“It was just a matter of social survival; your children would have been beaten up in school” if people knew they were Native American, said True. “It’s been only in recent years that Abenaki people have come out of the closet.”

Gedakina’s efforts include working with teachers who go into schools to teach about local Indians and their traditions. Morgan, a high school Latin teacher, said the need to dispel myths is a recurring challenge. She said one is that all Indians are dark-skinned.

“It’s been 500 years that families have been mixing,” she said.

Another: that Indians live in teepees.

She said Indians on the East Coast never did live in teepees. Instead, they had wigwams, which are usually smaller and more conical.

Gedakina is far from the first group to try to win recognition and appreciation for Eastern tribes. Others include the Abenaki Self-Help Association in Swanton, Vt., the very successful Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and the Vermont Folklife Center in Woodstock, which has created a curriculum about the Abenaki for schools. True describes his group as a “tribal family.”

Many other groups have sprung up in the last few decades; some have disappeared.

But Morgan said Gedakina is the first to include all the region’s tribes, which she prefers to call the Eastern First Nations societies.

Gedakina is applying for grants and other funds for longterm projects including a youth center in western Maine.

Meanwhile, they’re exploring smaller projects such as helping Indian veterans in Bangor, Maine, hold a contest this summer involving an Indian tradition, fried bread. Made with flour, water, baking powder, and baking soda, that dish “almost has a spiritual symbolism to it,” Pouliot said. “Anyplace you go, there’s going to be fried bread.”

The goal, bringing the region’s Indians together, is widely shared.

“Here on the East Coast, where our numbers are so small, if we could bridge our differences, our voices would be louder,” Francis said.

AP-ES-05-30-04 1132EDT



Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.