Honoring the Memory of a Lifetime Passamaquoddy Basketmaker
June 25, 2020

Honoring the Memory of a Lifetime Passamaquoddy Basketmaker

Surrounded by family and loved ones touched by her lifetime of basket making, Molly Neptune Parker (Passamaquoddy) passed peacefully in June 2020. The matriarch of four generations of Passamaquoddy basketweavers, Molly left behind footprints for future generations to walk in. She was a 2008 First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Awards (CSA) recipient and lived a life dedicated to the preservation of Passamaquoddy traditions and values.

Born in Indian Township, Maine, in 1939, Molly would sit and watch her mother make baskets. Molly gathered leftover scraps of ash and sweet grass from her mother's work and played with them.

The basket making process began with her dad pounding ash trees with the bottom of an ax to loosen each ring around the tree. Going from one end of the tree to the other, he loosened upwards to 20 rings. Molly's mother, and the other women of her family, stripped and split the ash into the correct thickness for basketweaving, depending on if they were making work baskets or fancy baskets.

Instead of going outside to play like the other children, Molly fooled around with scrap material, her interest growing with age. She soon began picking out useable material from her mother's little basket to weave, starting a 75 year journey of making baskets.

In her early twenties, Molly married a truck driver who hailed from a family of basket weavers. In the off times of work, together with a few others, Molly and her husband made 100 baskets per week to sell to fish factories.

Molly gravitated back to fancy baskets in the early '70s. She developed her signature acorn basket that features an ash flower on top, a design used by her mother and grandmother.

It wasn't long after that Molly began selling fancy baskets at craft fairs. Every time she sold a basket, she put the money in a special account, eventually saving enough for a downpayment on a home.

Molly rapidly gained recognition in the art world, though for Molly, her craft was about looking forward and also looking back to her ancestors, determined to carry on their traditions. She studied and handled baskets from present to past, up to 200 years old, from several tribes. She even had an opportunity to see a basket made by her great-grandmother.

"When I hold a basket of someone who has gone before, I am holding part of them, and it is a link to the future and all the hands that will hold it."
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In her 2008 CSA application, Molly said, "When I hold a basket of someone who has gone before, I am holding part of them, and it is a link to the future and all the hands that will hold it. Art is both a way of healing by learning the discipline of basket making while being a means of expression."

Nominated by First Peoples Fund CSA honoree and Native Artist Professional Development trainer Theresa Secord (Penobscot), Molly's CSA award acknowledged her leadership in the resurgence of basketry in Maine. On Molly's passing, Theresa wrote:

"Molly Neptune Parker of Indian Township, Maine, was a natural leader in the resurgence of Wabanaki basketry among the four tribes; Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac, and Maliseet. Like a few other elders keeping the tradition alive, she continued to weave and teach Passamaquoddy basketry, during the times in the last century before there were higher prices and awards for doing so. She is credited with helping to save the endangered (at the time) ash and sweet grass basketry tradition in Maine. During Molly's nearly 20 year tenure as president of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, the average age of basket makers decreased from 63 to 40, and numbers increased from 55 founding members to around 150, bringing forth a new younger generation of ash and sweet grass basket makers. Some of these basket makers have gone on to win national acclaim for their artistry and earn viable livings through their practice, ensuring the art form will survive."

"As Gal Frey (Passamaquoddy basket maker) said upon her passing, 'Molly's loss represents the end of an era of Wabanaki basketry, where people grew up learning their traditional basketry and speaking their language in the home.' There are strong efforts currently underway to save and revive these practices thanks to the hard work and steadfast commitment of people like Molly. She is sadly missed by her family, the Passamaquoddy tribe, and the entire Wabanaki community."

The National Endowment for the Arts recognized Molly as a National Heritage Fellow in 2012, the nation's highest honor in the arts, a lifetime achievement award. Molly earned numerous awards and recognition in her lifetime, but it always came back to mentoring the next generation.

She had ten children — six natural and four adopted — and taught basket making to the ones who were interested. When her grandchild, Geo Neptune (Passamaquoddy) was four years old, they asked their grandmother if they could sit with her and make baskets. They now create their own designs, staying with traditional, yet incorporating their own style into each basket they make.

Molly was a conduit between the past generations of basket makers and future ones.

"There are more people today making baskets then there were in the '70s," Molly said in an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. "They realize the value of the work, not only for money but to continue the tradition. They're finally realizing how important it is to carry on the tradition our forefathers started.”

"Art is both a way of healing by learning the discipline of basket making while being a means of expression."
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