2. Early History and Economy
It is evident that the role of women in the profession of basket weaving has been mostly ignored up until the latter part of the 20th century. Upon careful analysis of the information before me, it seems that we must critically review not only the historical texts that explore basket weaving but also the actual women who have dedicated their lives to the art for the survival of their families, from time immemorial to the present.
Most of the history that has been written about the Mi'kmaq people from the early explorers until the latter part of the 20th century was biassed, written from the European point of view, with their impressions guided by the judgements from their cultural background. Many explorers and historians dissected the culture of the Mi'kmaq and passed judgement that Mi'kmaq ways were not right because they were not like the European ways. The Mi'kmaq people believed in different ways within a different culture than that of the Europeans. They had their own world view, and that view was equally as valid as the European view.
Much European-based history that I read was based on texts and on events as they were written down. Native culture and history were mostly passed on orally, looking at traditions as they were handed down. The treaties of 1725 promised the Mi'kmaq people the "right to wares" (such as baskets) and promised that Mi'kmaq people would be permitted to gather products of the forest to satisfy their needs, but the treaties do not tell the cultural value of the wares and the forests. Too much history looks at treaties, not traditions. Basket weaving is a tradition that not many histories of the Mi'kmaq people have looked at in detail.
Often, major Canadian publications about Atlantic Canada's native peoples talked about the Mi'kmaq only in relation to Europeans, instead of looking at their own identity. In 1974 in The Native People of Atlantic Canada, published by McClelland and Stewart, for instance, basket weaving is looked at only in relation to economy and trade with non-natives. It also focusses on the men who were involved in the business side of basket weaving. It does say that weaving has "a continuous history from aboriginal days" but then insultingly says, "a few old women at Shubenacadie still can do skilful porcupine quill work." (139) "A few old women" is not a respectful way to refer to elders of a community keeping an age-old skill alive for their community and culture.
For this history, I tried to look mostly at sources that were written by Mi'kmaq people from a Mi'kmaq perspective. We Mi'kmaq people are telling our own stories now, and we are passing on our stories through books, the education system, television, and even the Internet. For example, an ETV series about the Mi'kmaq was written for schools by Mi'kmaq people, and it tells us the Mi'kmaq culture had its own self-sufficient economy based on the resources of the land and sea: "It was an economically and socially viable culture with a complex and indigenous technology, a culture adapted to life in a Northern Maritime environment" (Mi'kmaq Teacher's Handbook). Some of the information in this history was told to me, orally, by the Mi'kmaq men and women I have met and spoken to. Some of them told their own stories of weaving baskets. Some gave me more background about the Mi'kmaq world view. Noel Knockwood, an elder who has studied Mi'kmaq spirituality, helped explain traditional emphasis on women as the life-givers in families and communities.
Recently, some writers have been working to preserve basket weaving heritage, even here on Prince Edward Island. Darlene Bernard, in her book of profiles of Mi'kmaq women of Lennox Island, talks about basket weaving as a daily part of almost all the older women's lives. She almost could not profile them without talking about their weaving: it was so much part of their lives.
Throughout the 20th century, many Prince Edward Island Mi'kmaq women learned the art of basket weaving from a very early age. Research in early Mi'kmaq material culture has stated that women were traditionally the artists in Mi'kmaq families. Since far back in history, women have woven baskets. The baskets were not designed to spruce up their homes, because homes were not permanent in the early days of the Mi'kmaq. Women and their children made baskets not to make money, but to use in daily life as part of their means of survival, even before the introduction of the trading system between the Europeans and the Mi'kmaq. Later, baskets helped sustain the survival of the Mi'kmaq people, and they still do today.
It is now time to use a Mi'kmaq perspective to reveal the secrets of the Island women weavers who gave birth to and raised the art of basket weaving. Let the story be told.