Passamaquoddy Basket-weaver Earns Awards at National Festival

Chosen as one of two pieces that received the Harrison Eiteljorg Purchase Award and selected as best in division for basketry at the Eiteljorg Indian Market and Festival in Indiana was "Ceremony of the Singing Stars", a basket made by Passamaquoddy Geo Soctomah Neptune. (Submitted photo)

By Lura Jackson

 

Traditionally speaking, basket-weaving has been a practice and an art of the Wabanaki people since beyond the recollection of oral history. Baskets made from the bark of birch trees and woodsplint were a practical method of transporting goods and conducting trade. When the encroachment of Europeans threatened the survival of the Wabanaki, the technique of making ornamental baskets fashioned from sweetgrass and brown ash arose as a method of generating income. Now, in the modern era, basketmaking continues to evolve – evidenced in part by Geo Soctomah Neptune of the Passamaquoddy tribe, whose submissions swept the awards at the 25th Annual Eiteljorg Indian Market and Festival in Indiana in June.

Neptune, who identifies as a “two-spirit”, was selected by Eiteljorg to be the signature artist for the festival. One of Neptune’s baskets, made to resemble a rainbow corn – which Neptune playfully refers to as “Gaize” – was chosen as the signature piece, meaning it was shown on the tee-shirts, brochures and the press materials for the event. Another piece, titled “Ceremony of the Singing Stars”, was one of two pieces in the festival granted the Harrison Eiteljorg Purchase Award, meaning it will remain on display in the Eiteljorg collection. “Ceremony of the Singing Stars” also received best in division for basketry and first place for contemporary basket making. A third piece, titled “Evolution of the Transberry”, received first place in traditional basketmaking.

“It was a big honor for me,” said Neptune of being chosen as the signature artist and having “Ceremony of the Singing Stars” entered into the Eiteljorg collection.  “Ceremony for the Singing Stars” was woven “to raise awareness of queer people and the struggles that we are still facing.”

Neptune has been making baskets with a unique touch since they were four years old. Neptune recalls making their first basket with their grandmother, Molly Neptune – herself a skilled basketmaker. “I waited for her to leave the room before I decorated it with crayon,” Neptune said with a laugh. “She was very upset, but I thought it looked more ‘Geo’ that way.”

The tradition of Passamaquoddy basket-weaving does not require its practitioners to abide precisely by formulaic designs. Instead, basketmakers are encouraged to make their pieces with slight variations, or to combine two traditional forms into something new. 

“I realized I have an ability to tell stories through my baskets,” said Neptune. “So what stories do I – as someone who identifies as a two-spirit – and living in Washington County, Maine – what stories do I have to tell? That’s really where that all kind of started.”

Neptune, who grew up in Indian Township, studied theater at Dartmouth College, worked at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor for four years as an educator, and then moved back to Indian Township in recent months, has now decided to dedicate themselves fully to basketmaking. “I realized that this is what I want to do and this is where I want to be,” Neptune said. In addition to continuing to work with their grandmother, Neptune has begun mentoring their younger sister in the art of basket making.

Neptune’s pieces are on display in various galleries across the state of Maine, as well as in the small workshop they now share with their grandmother. Along with basketmaking, Neptune is gaining acclaim for their woven jewelry, viewable at byellowtail.com.

Asked what they hope to convey with their craft, Neptune said, “I want Passamaquoddy kids to see that they can be successful and be Indians at the same time.” Neptune expressed a desire to depart from the myth that success is measured in miles from the reservation, and then clarified that it holds true for non-natives in Washington County, as well. “I think it’s important to be able to show youth that they can be themselves, and they can do it right here in Washington County.”