b. Early history of basket weavingTraditionally, baskets made by Island Mi'kmaq women were used for a variety of purposes. Prior to the introduction of early European explorers, traders, and settlers, early baskets were used for carrying and storing food and materials; they were important to survival within the Mi'kmaq society. When families travelled from place to place on the Island and across the Maritimes, sometimes over long distances, baskets would be used to carry all their belongings. Women in those times had enormous responsibility to ensure the survival in the camp. Each gender and each member of the community had responsibilities to keep life going within the environment.
Baskets were not only used to contain food, though. They contributed to Mi'kmaq survival also by being used for fishing purposes: "The larger fish were caught most commonly by two methods: one was to build a weir across the stream and to place a basket net in the mouth of a
small opening. When the basket filled, it would be emptied and returned to the water." Both women and men participated in fishing.
Mi'kmaq women made baskets and taught the tradition within the laws of nature, like all traditions are taught in the Mi'kmaq society. Mi'kmaq women would use grasses from the Maritime environment to weave items that were necessary to live in that same Maritime environment. All of nature was respected within the world view of the Mi'kmaq people, and all resources from nature were obtained and utilized to their fullest extent. There was no such thing as wasting a product that was made by the Creator; if anything were to be wasted, then Mi'kmaq people believed something bad might happen to the people, animals, or nature. In the Mi'kmaq tradition, when a tree is split for a basket or anything is taken from nature, then something is given in return as an offering to the Creator. Often tobacco would be left on the ground or in the water, as a sacred offering. This tradition dates back before history. It was with these lessons of the culture in mind that Mi'kmaq women taught the young children how to weave.
Weaving was important to young women, even in preparing for the ritual of marriage. Weaving was seen as a necessary skill for raising a family and participating in the community. The ETV Series mentioned earlier features scenes of a bride "gathering rushes, which she will dry, dye, and weave into mats, bags, and baskets" (Mi'kmaq Teacher's Handbook). The same source notes, "As a girl grows older, she will take on more responsibilities, perfecting her skills in sewing, weaving, and basketry." It is interesting that many similar skills were valued in young women in rural non-native communities. In both Mi'kmaq and non-native households, work was divided according to gender roles.
Because baskets were important to survival, when a woman wove or taught her children to weave, she gave life and also taught her children how to produce the means of their survival. Education in early Mi'kmaq years was not institutionalized -- it was environmental.
After initial contact with Europeans, basket weaving took on new meanings and new importance, but remained important to Mi'kmaq communities' survival as part of the trading system. Basket weaving, which had been part of a natural subsistence economy, came to be part of the trade- and money-based economy. Because baskets could be traded for European goods, they became an even more vital part of Mi'kmaq life and survival.
The photo below depicts a Mi'kmaq family posing around their seasonal home. Notice the checker-woven apple baskets made of pounded ash woodsplints.
This photograph was taken in 1894. The photo is of a Mi'kmaq family near a wigwam making wood splint baskets:
The woman second from the left is just beginning to weave a basket and has threaded four woodsplints at right angles through four others. These will form the base of the basket, and perhaps with others added to them, and then will be bent up to form the standards (the warps) for the basket sides.