Public basket-weaving events showcase Mi'kmaw cultural heritage

Islanders have an opportunity to see traditional Mi'kmaw basket-weaving in action and learn about the history of Mi'kmaw baskets at a Charlottetown coffee shop this month. 

Goal of events is to get people ‘thinking about what reconciliation means’

Keptin James Bernard from Lennox Island, P.E.I., with a hamper basket made in his workshop. He learned to weave baskets from his father, then took it up again later in life. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Islanders have an opportunity to see traditional Mi'kmaw basket-weaving in action and learn about the history of Mi'kmaw baskets at a Charlottetown coffee shop this month. 

Receiver Coffee, in partnership with the P.E.I. Mi'kmaw rights initiative L'nuey, is hosting the demonstrations every Saturday in August at its brass shop location on Water Street. 

They're calling it Weaving Pathways to Reconciliation. 

"The basket in itself has helped the Mi'kmaq survive through all the rough times that we had during the '50s, '60s, '70s, and probably way back into the Roaring '20s," said Keptin James Bernard, a member of the Lennox Island First Nation and one of the basket-weavers who will be at the demonstration events. 

"It's really a lost art. And I like to see young people learn that art," said Bernard, who first learned how to make baskets as a child from his father.

Elders Joe John Sanipass and Keptin James Bernard at the first of four Mi'kmaw basket-weaving demonstrations at Receiver Coffee this August. (Julie Pellissier-Lush)

He helped his father pound the pieces of ash wood that are used to create the baskets. 

"Ash at the time was very, very important material. And you didn't want a kid trying to split the splints in two … because they would probably ruin a few of them in the attempt to do so. So the grown-ups would usually take care of that," said Bernard. 

Splints are the thin pieces of wood that are woven together to create the basket. 

Bernard lost interest in basket-weaving as he got older, and only returned to it later in life. 

"I was getting up into my golden years, I decided I need something more relaxing," he said. 

"To me, basket-making now has become a therapy. Because you can't think of anything else when you're doing a basket. Otherwise the basket would come out pretty nasty." 

That would be a big, big thing to even get some of our culture out there and our history out there.— Keptin James Bernard

The first of four basket-weaving demonstrations was Aug. 7, with three more on the next three Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

Along with Bernard, Elder Joe John Sanipass from the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, who is well-known as a basket-weaver, will be at the events. 

People coming by have a chance to see a basket being put together, as well as learn about the history of Mi'kmaw basket-weaving. 

"I love doing [the public demonstrations]. Because it's not very many people know …  they've always seen a basket, but they don't know what it is, the story behind the basket. And the importance of the basket," said Bernard. 

Keptin James Bernard demonstrates Mi'kmaw basket-weaving at his workshop on Lennox Island. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Baskets were a means of survival for the Mi'kmaq in the first part of the 20th century. They traded them to settlers in exchange for goods and services. 

As part of his presentation, Bernard shows people a black-and-white photo of his uncle standing in front of a small shed, with a pile of intricate baskets in the foreground. 

"A lot of people would find a batch of wood in the woods, whether it be maple, white ash or black ash, and then they would set up a tent or a lean-to," said Bernard. 

"This is how they lived, right there, where they would make all of their baskets to be sold."

'25 cents per basket'

Bernard said back then, Mi'kmaq were paid 25 cents per basket. 

"The baskets were made and sold in the hundred-batch, which would give the Mi'kmaq $25 to live on," he said.

For Receiver Coffee, the demonstrations are a chance to do something "interactive and community oriented," said Colleen MacKay, one of Receiver's owners, in an email. 

"The overarching vision was to create another opportunity to engage with the arts and culture of Mi'kmaq on P.E.I., and to get the community thinking about what reconciliation means," said MacKay. 

Keptin James Bernard shows a photo of his uncle and some of the baskets he made while working at a lean-to in the woods. For many decades, Mi'kmaq sold baskets to settlers as a means of survival. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

The café received funding for the events from Discover Charlottetown and reached out to L'nuey, now their neighbours at the Epekwitk Assembly of Councils building on Water Street, about collaborating. 

MacKay said the first event last weekend went well. 

"Customers were curious, many sat and watched the weaving, and some came to ask the elders about the process of weaving and its significance to Mi'kmaw culture," she said. 

She said you don't have to enter the shop to take part, as the demonstration is taking place outside the patio, on the lawn. 

There's also an interactive component.

"Those who stop by will be invited to help decorate the baskets by writing messages of hope for reconciliation with First Nations in Canada on small wooden blocks," MacKay said.

"Eventually, the blocks will be incorporated into the two finished baskets, one of which will stay with us to be displayed and the other will go to L'nuey." 

'Get some of our culture out there'

For Bernard, it's important to share this part of his history. 

"There's a lot of people coming up and asking the same question, like, 'We didn't know this.' And I'm sure there's a lot of other people who didn't know this too," said Bernard. 

"That would be a big, big thing to even get some of our culture out there and our history out there."

He said basket-weaving is coming back "in full force" in P.E.I., with more younger weavers learning the craft. 

"It's not in only one place, but in a lot of places. And I think that the people who have an interest in the art of making a basket will do great things," said Bernard. 

MacKay said one of the goals of the events is to show that we all have a part to play in reconciliation. 

"Even if that role is as simple as showing up, engaging, learning, and letting it be known you aren't supportive of the status quo," she said.

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Isabelle Gallant is a radio producer and web writer who has worked for CBC in Edmonton and Toronto. She grew up in Halifax and Charlottetown and is happy to be back home on P.E.I.