interview by CAROLYN SWARTZ


Still, he [grandfather] had told me early on, “I can show you how to make a basket.
But you have to figure out how you make a basket.”
—Gabriel Frey, master basketmaker


Master basketmaker Gabriel Frey.
Sweet Grass is a collaboration by
Gabriel Frey and Suzanne Greenlaw, Gabriel's wife.

Gabriel, your baskets are gorgeous, but beyond objects, they’re integral to the traditions of your culture. Can you talk a little about your background?

My family is Passamaquoddy, which is one of the tribes of the Wabanaki confederacy, along with Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Penobscot. Wabanaki means “people of the dawn land”—the place where the sun first meets the land.

Meaning the place farthest east, on the coast looking out at the horizon?

Yes. Everything in our language is relational, with names of tribes describing proximity, types of land, what people do there. Passamaquoddy means “people who spear pollack.” Penobscot, anglicized like many of these names, refers to “the place where the white rocks come out of the water.” But before European contact, we just called ourselves Skicinuwi, which means “people.” Humans. It was only the Europeans who came and felt the need to categorize and separate.

“Categorize and separate.” Can you explain that?

When you have an oral tradition, the culture is shaped around relationships, not divisions. In our culture, even the way you introduce yourself to others is to find commonalities, not to expose differences.

So, if I were introducing myself to you, I’d first tell you the community I came from. My clan. My family within that clan. Who my mother is, and more—with all this information forming half of a circle. In the same way, you’d complete the other half. And through this, we’d find out how we’re related and where our family paths have intersected. It’s not like that for Europeans.

Right. “Hi, I’m John Smith.” That ought to be enough.

Exactly. When I was growing up, the word for a white person was wenuhc. I’d hear older people say, “He’s a wenuhc,” which meant a white man from town.

Kind of like a “muggle” in Harry Potter?

(laughs) Kind of. I learned from an elder what wenuhc means is “Who are they?” So, a wenuhc was someone who’s unattached—with no connection to link that person back to you.

Beyond these words, do you speak the language of your people? And what’s it called?

The language of the Passamaquoddy is Maliseet or Wolastoqewi, which is related to Penobscot and Mi’kmaq. I’m not fluent, but I speak some and understand more from growing up in Indian Township, Motahkomikuk, and Pleasant Point, Sipayik, and also from spending time with my grandfather. Since ours is an oral tradition, knowledge is passed down from parents to children, person to person—not through literature or the written word.

And integral to that knowledge is making baskets?

We can trace basketmaking in my family back 13 generations. My grandfather was a basketmaker. But he was also a fisherman, a carpenter and cabinet maker, as well as a single father of 13 kids. My grandmother died in a fire while trying to save their 14th, an infant.

That’s unimaginably tragic. Did he remarry?

Eventually, yes. My mother was the oldest of the surviving children. At 15, she took over raising the kids before getting married and having four of her own.

Did your grandfather teach you basketmaking as a matter of course, or because you asked him to?

Neither, really. Understand, for generations, indigenous craftsmen had been making baskets not only for their own people but also for a wider American and European market. For our people, there were two kinds of baskets: the utility basket and the fancy basket. Utility baskets were made to put things in and be used. So they were made in different shapes and sizes for different uses: pack baskets for stowing in the hull of a canoe; baskets for fishing, for hunting, for harvesting potatoes; and scale baskets—which often had the painted insignia of the owner—for weighing fish.

During the Victorian era, native baskets came to the attention of the rusticators. This gave rise to the popularity of fancy baskets, which were smaller and more ornate.

What are rusticators?

Just what it sounds like: adventurers who traveled to parts of the country looking for rustic experience and handmade items to bring home or, more likely, to sell—especially to fascinated Europeans. They traveled through Maine, across Canada to Alaska—anywhere they could interact with indigenous people and buy products small enough to pack and take back.

In Maine, there was a flourishing basket market and native encampment on one of the islands off Bar Harbor. It was the rusticator demand that bolstered the demand for the fancy baskets that, unlike the utility basket, was made first and foremost to be beautiful. And, of course, to sell.

The rusticator era was still going strong until the 1920s. After that, demand fell off. By the 1990s, the basketmaking community in Maine—once a major industry—had dwindled to only about 20 master makers around the state.

So basketmaking nearly became a lost art?

Yes. And what a cultural tragedy that would have been. Making baskets is not just a family tradition. It’s a mechanism for preserving community and transmitting cultural knowledge. Because when people got together to make baskets, they shared their language, stories and traditions.

Recognizing this, a group of elder basketmakers got together to form the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. Through grants, they were able to take on apprentices. The emphasis was on fancy baskets because, as always, that’s where the money was. In fact, MIBA is where my brother Jeremy—who is nationally renowned for his baskets—got his start.

But you learned directly from your grandfather, right?

Yes. I was 18 and not particularly interested in baskets when my grandfather was diagnosed with emphysema and given about three years to live. I decided to go and spend time with him, because nobody in my generation had learned all the things he knew.

Was your grandfather a good teacher?

Let’s say he was a traditional teacher. If my work wasn’t good, he’d say, “Nope. Do it again.” And when it was, he’d just go, “Yup. Pretty good.” Sometimes he’d also give me tips on how to do it better.

What were his baskets like?

Strictly utilitarian. He carved his own handles, and every part of the basket was made of black ash. Understand, I was young. I wanted to experiment. At some point I made a pack basket entirely in a herringbone weave, which is not traditional at all. My grandfather didn’t know what to make of it. Still, he had told me early on, “I can show you how to make a basket. But you have to figure out how you make a basket.”

There’s real wisdom in what your grandfather told you. Is black ash the only wood you can use for baskets?

Not the only one. But it’s an incredible material: strong, with amazing flexibility that early on made me want to push the limits of design—even in the utility baskets I know will get banged up through use. About 10 years ago, I started to create a line of purses, which I see as utility baskets because people use them, as in put things inside them. My purses are small baskets shaped almost like a creel.

What’s a creel?

It’s the flat-topped fishing basket used by fly fishermen.

I don’t know anything about fishing.

Neither do I. But I know about creels. I kept refining the purse concept by trial and error, asking the women I know: Does this work? Can you fit a phone in there? What feels right to wear?

Do some people buy your utility baskets purely as objets d’art? And if so, does it bother you to know they won’t be used?

It used to. My utility baskets are strong and useful, even if they’re pretty. There was a time when I didn’t want to sell a basket that wasn’t going to be used. No longer. Now I look at it this way: when someone buys a piece, it’s no longer mine. The intention is there. And through generations of the same practice, there’s something that accumulates.

You mean “something that accumulates” within you?

No. I mean within the object itself. My baskets are an expression of the living culture. When somebody owns a piece—whether they display it in their living room, or it sits on a shelf, or they use it every day—it’s still an embodiment of knowledge and place. It’s my culture, alive and interacting with them.

When you show and sell your baskets around the country—for example, at the Santa Fe Market, where you’ve won awards—do you get to know the collectors?

I do. And I value the relationship. I like to make things with people. So while I arrive at these markets with baskets ready to sell, a good deal of my work is custom. People are more interested in what I make when they understand the tradition and at least something about the process. So I talk with everyone I can. Of course, winning ribbons helps—because collectors take notice.

What keeps you excited about making baskets?

For one thing, perpetuating the living culture. But also, the deep relationship between form and function. For example, the shape of a pack basket is very specific—designed, as I mentioned, to fit into the hull of a canoe. When I carry that shape into purses, it’s a nod to that original function. And when I change things up—with natural dyes or different weaves or a leather lid or liner—I know, from studying basketry, that I’m not inventing something entirely new. Same for combining pleasing aspects of utility and fancy baskets. At some point, it’s surely all been done.

How long does it take you to make a basket?

From tree to basket, about a month: a day or a day and a half to pound the log, then the splitting and shaving and gauging. Those are days and days of work.

I’ve watched the video of you pounding a black ash log. Can you talk about that part of the process?

The point of pounding is to fracture the fibers between each growth ring: the fast cellular growth. Ash is a ring-porous tree. Each season creates a sharp delineation between the rapid growth of summer and the slow growth of winter. By pounding, you’re compressing and fracturing that fast summer growth in order to remove the denser slow-growth ring, which is what gets used.

You’re good with an axe. Got all your fingers?

Some scars, but yes, all of them. And once the tree is cut down, you’re using the butt, not the blade, side of the axe. Each strike has to be precise, overlapping the one before by about a half inch. If you mis-strike—if the axe is just a little bit off or the wrong angle in any direction—it cuts into the material instead of just breaking down the fibers. Doing it right is a function of where you strike and the amount of force you use. You get a feel for that over time.

How does it feel to be practicing an art that goes back so many generations?

With the first basket I ever made, came this deep sense of remembering. When you touch the material, there’s a kind of cellular memory. I can’t describe what that’s like, because it just is. How do you describe what air feels like? It feels natural. But it feels good to breathe, so it also feels good. At the same time, there’s sadness knowing that my own children—my daughters—will be the first not to pass along this tradition to their children.

Because you want a different life for your children?

No. Because of the emerald ash borer. The black ash, the species we’ve used for thousands of years, will probably be gone in my lifetime.

That’s sobering. There’s no other tree like it?

Not exactly. You can use white oak, which has wonderful qualities. But the material is not as supple and there’s continual disruption of the fiber. So it requires a different method, as well as working with shorter strips. In black ash we’re looking at a tree that sustained our people for generations. The prevalence of the destructive emerald ash borer (EAB) is a result of globalization. And human intervention.

As in climate change?

Yes. All of the above. Climate change is a small factor in the infestation, although a greater one with other borers like the southern pine beetle. But humans brought the EAB here in the first place and are responsible for the incredible pace of its spread across the country, in firewood transported across state lines. Climate crisis is a problem, particularly for the habitat. But for black ash, the infestation is really the result of short-term gains causing long-term problems for generations to come.

Which brings me back to your daughters. Crazy question: Do women make baskets too?

Women can do anything and make anything. Sure, there are traditionalists who think women can’t pound. But I don’t believe there’s such a thing as women’s work. Women can do it all.

Are your daughters interested in the art of basketry?

My girls are just 4 and 9. I try to expose them to the process without imposing a burden of responsibility. My younger daughter in particular has retained a lot of information just by being around me. It’s exposure without the must-dos.

How about your wife? Does she make baskets?

Suzanne is a PhD candidate at the University of Maine. She’s involved in several research studies aimed at mobilizing indigenous knowledge in science. She’s also an accomplished jeweler and leather worker. And yes, she makes baskets from time to time. We met through her research into the black ash, although we soon figured out that as kids we’d been at the same summer camp at the same time. In fact, we were in the same art class when a kid swallowed a needle. EMS came, and the kid was fine. But we both recall the event as traumatic.

Along with being a master basketmaker, you’re a massage therapist. Do you find there’s confluence between the two?

Absolutely. The healing arts are hard on the body. Massage therapy has one of the highest burnout rates of any field. The healing—and by that I mean the self-healing I get from making baskets—is restorative. It has allowed me to continue both. I’m currently taking a course in biodynamic sacrocranial therapy.

The practice is similar to taking a tree and reorganizing its cellular structure. The tree remains a living, breathing piece of wood that expands and contracts with each season. I remember, as a kid, my grandfather bringing his baskets to our house. The first year you could hear them creaking as they settled. The material has a dynamic nature; you can feel its biotensegrity.

So yes, there are parallels between working with a living body and working with living wood. As humans, we are all this woven fabric of connective tissue, held together by reciprocal tension. Not unlike a basket.

. . .


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