Nov. 5 saw the return of the basket-making workshop, a craft practiced in Wabanaki culture. Though the workshop has run in previous years, this year marked the beginning of its institutionalization into the College’s calendar. Primarily sponsored by the Four Winds Native American Alliance, the event hosted Paula Love of the Penobscot Nation at the Pugh Center, where she showed attendees the basics of Wabanaki basketweaving and displayed some of her impressive work.
Attendees, of course, were not expected to learn the skills necessary to make even the simplest baskets within an hour. Instead, however, every person at the event was given a pre-made kit to make a bookmark. These kits were made from ash bark that had been split into fine, thin pieces —which Paula describes as a very labor-intensive process — and then dyed different colors. Blades of sweetgrass, grass that is collected by the coast, are woven between the ash, though Paula notes that, unfortunately, a lot of the chemicals on roads threaten sweetgrass.
Speaking with Four Winds President Kale Sapiel `23, who is also a member of the Penobscot Nation, I understood more of the history behind the practice of basket-weaving for Wabanaki culture.
“Basket weaving is part of many cultures across what is now known as America, but specifically for the Wabanaki, it was originally a way for our people to do a lot of things,” he explained. “Nowadays it’s been relegated to just art, and we see a white man who literally bought baskets off of people way back when we, our people, were just trying to make money to support [ourselves],” he said.
Sapiel explained that during the colonization of the northeastern United States, Wabanaki people would turn baskets made for practical usage into art that Europeans were more interested in, selling them for very little money. In turn, white people would sell them for “hundreds or thousands of dollars,” them as fine art.
“A lot of the time tribal people don’t see that money, and [the baskets are] stuck in museums,” Sapiel added.
Sapiel, who was able to institutionalize this basket-making event as an annual workshop, has been working as an advocate for Indigenous rights at the College since his first year, though it has come with several challenges and preconceptions that people have about Indigenous people. “There have been very gross actions taken against Wabanaki people, even today with legislation and everyday interactions,” he said. “There are people who live in Maine, even that live a county over from a tribal Nation, and they don’t even know that Natives exist still. They all think we’re all dead, but…we’re still here.”
This brings up an age-old issue with North American higher education: the lack of real-life representation of people from minority groups. In particular, Indigenous people are severely under-enrolled, as Sapiel’s story illustrates.
“When I got to Colby, I was a little worried that there were going to be no Natives here. I thought I was gonna be alone, and…for the most part, that’s true. I came here for admitted students week, and I was looking around trying to find any semblance of Natives, trying to find my community…but I couldn’t. And finally, I was like ‘let me look at the clubs, maybe I’ll find solace in the clubs,’ and sure enough, there was a club — not run by Natives, though, at the time,” he said.
Eventually, Sapiel took on the job of being the president of Four Winds, which came at a time when most students are typically still adjusting to college.
“I joined serving as an Indigenous voice on-campus trying to figure out how to be a leader and myself at the same time,” he said.
Sapiel also brought up the history of forcibly taking Native children to white boarding schools, which he expressed might make Native children hesitant to apply to colleges in the first place.
“The schooling systems that we’ve been in and the legacies of the Indian reservation schools are still around, and some people are still traumatized,” he said. “They really see schools as the enemy, and I don’t blame them. The way the nuns and everything treated them… Some people, their children were taken by the state or…the federal government, and they were shipped off to schools all across the world, really removing them from the worldview. They were literally ripped away as children and shoved in these schools, and they were taught that everything they know is wrong, and if they spoke their language they were beaten, and some people never came home, and if they came home, they were never the same,” he said.
Most people at the event — from different ethnicities, cultures, and even ages — were enjoying themselves and relaxing with the rhythm of weaving. But, this by itself did not reveal the harsh truths of the history and continued wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples across the continent. Even the College needs more action to correct these wrongs.
~ Nico Flota Sanchez `25