The Historic Indigenous Arts of Vermont and New Hampshire
By Frederick M. Wiseman Ph.D.
When we think of indigenous American craft arts, we immediately think of Navajo rugs and Tahono o’odam (Papago) basketry. Or perhaps the woodcarvings of the Northwest Coast of North America. Possibly one of the least recognized historical Native American crafts regions of North America is the Far Northeast, only a few books will mention baskets made by Maine or Canadian Maritime tribes. However, Vermont and New Hampshire have a vibrant but little known artistic tradition stretching back over 10,000 years. The oldest artistic works are made of stone, chipped or ground into beautiful but useful tools such as the clean, almost Art Deco-looking lines of Vermont Middle Archaic Period gouges, the tight design of Late Archaic lapidary jewelry, or the evocative rock-carved human face petroglyphs at Bellows Falls. However, except for stone, and a few pieces of shell, there is little that remains, underground of this rich artistic tradition. During the So-Called Colonial Era (1609-ca. 1800) the Indigenous Arts of our region are still little understood and seem to resemble those of neighboring tribes. There are occasional pieces of 18th century quillwork-decorated leather craft or twined basketry residing in museums and private collections illustrating the precise work and artistic flair of the People. Unfortunately, they are so similar to items made by our Penobscot, Huron and Iroquois neighbors that there has been little effort by art historians to find out what is specific to our region.
Below, are a few examples of older art traditions that have good ties to the VT/NH region and its immediate environs of southern Quebec. These show a careful choice of material, excellent plotting out the eventual form, and meticulous care in decoration — evidence of a well developed craft tradition that its practitioners were very comfortable with. Many of our 19th and early 20th-century craft arts seem to have its closest ties to the great multiethnic Indian Village of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, but other traditions especially basketry shows early artistic similarity to Southern New England, while cloth seems more similar to our Wabanaki brethren, showing that our area was a great crossroads of artistic ideas flowing throughout the region.
Most Indigenous Vermont and New Hampshire wood craft is very utilitarian, and probably would not be classed as fine or decorative art. However, some particular forms, such as crooked knives and root clubs have become accepted as valuable craft arts by art historians and critics. We do see nice examples of these tools that have come from our area, but have a distinct stylistic look. Root clubs, for example, did not seem to be made and sold in Vermont as tourist items, although very similar looking ones were sold for that purpose at Kahnawake. These root clubs tend to be carved relatively simply with minimal decoration, usually of fine ink or watercolor delineating bird-like beaks and eyes, rather than the fine carved detailing and painted design demanded by tourist buyers. Instead, we have a documented example that seemed to be used in healing, and another that was used to keep order within a family, indicating that they remained, at least in part, internal cultural implements.
Another well-designed and executed wooden implement is the crooked knife (often called “basket-knife” in VT). These distinctive native-design tools seem as rare as root clubs and are almost always entirely utilitarian. However, one crooked knife with a provenance just north of the Canadian Border in the Southern Eastern Townships of Quebec is finely crafted with beautiful incised and filled detail on the obverse and an artistically sweeping rake to the blade; thereby making a classic pieces of Northeastern Native art. (Photo to the right)
In the last 50 years or so decoys have emerged as a great vernacular art tradition, with many fetching many thousands of dollars at auction. Although there are Vermont decoy carvers with Indigenous heritage their creations are not considered “Indian Art.” However, a composite twig decoy from the same area as the crooked knife is so similar to the Cree “Tamarack Twig” decoys accepted as legitimate Indian Art that we will list it here. This is a goose “shadow decoy” constructed of black or river birch twigs and bound with cotton twine. A Nulhegan band elder remembered their use in middle 20th century cornfields around Lake Memphramagog to attract Canada geese to the shotgun. When viewed from a distance, the decoy has a wonderful flowing stance, and as the elder said “looks like a goose to another goose.. (Photo to the right)
These few items are only an introduction to the richness of historic Indigenous woodcraft of our region. Old bowls, spoons, wall-hangings, cups, walking staffs and even furniture remain to this day to grace museums and collections.
Since the 1970’s, beaded clothing and fashion accessories of our neighbors to the East have become some of the most collected and valuable of any Native American art. Fortunately, our regional styles have not seen such interest or even study by elite art collectors, and so the materials are still somewhat available and collectable by Indigenous museums and cultural organizations. I find that some of the late 19th and early 20th century clothing used by basketsellers especially interesting. It combines European materials such as cloth and ribbons with indigenous motifs to make a distinctive, but underappreciated fashion that I call “cut-cloth Fringe’ style. We have several examples of this style from the Connecticut River Valley and Lake Champlain which seem to date from the 1890’s to about the beginning of the Great Depression. The example that I share here is made from a tan twilled cotton with patchwork and ribbon-work detail below the neck and above the hem. It is sturdy and technically well made, so much so that it is still worn for educational purposes. (Photo to the right)
Of course everyone wants to know about “Abenaki Beadwork,” and unfortunately, pre-1900 Indigenous Vermont/New Hampshire beaded cloth is the most elusive craft art that remains today. There is one late 18th/early 19th century beaded moccasin vamp or epaulet that was found in NW Vermont that is in a generalized style that may or may not be Vermont Abenaki, but was at least used here at one point. (Photo below).
Probably a more characteristic style is the mid 19th century “flat bag” or reticule described below. It has a form related to the typical “tulip” or “inverted keyhole” bag sold by the Eastern Wabanaki people of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. However, the beadwork itself is distinctive and unlike that of the standard Wabanaki to the East, or the Iroquois styles to the west. Unfortunately, it has not yet attracted interest of collectors, museums and academics, so it is uncertain exactly whether this is a “Montreal Area,” “Eastern Townships (Quebec) area,” “Vermont area” “or “New Hampshire area” style; or all of the above. However, I believe that it represents the best candidate style for having been produced here in the mid 19th century. (Photo to the right)
The one craft art likely to show up in VT/NH antique shops is ash-splint basketry, and there are many styles and types. I will illustrate two of the older more utilitarian types that were made before the ubiquitous “sweetgrass” and “cowiss” touristic souvenir baskets that are so common today. Ash splint basket making in VT/NH basically went extinct in the 1930’s. Baskets after that time seem to be made by expatriate basket sellers from Canada or Maine who sold tourist goods in places such as the White Mountains Intervale or the shores of Lake Champlain. (Photo to the right)
The first early type is from the 1830’s and is more closely related to southern New England basketry, in its “varying splint” construction and the use of stamping and or painting on the wide splints as decoration. it was probably used like a bandbox, for the storage of lightweight household and fashion goods such as yarn or hats. The second basket, probably from the third quarter of the 19th century, still retains the varying splints, but now shows direct influence of basketry evolution to the East, in its checkerboard (rectangular) base and the treatment of the radiating splints on the lid. Instead of being stamped, the wider splints are “daub-dyed” or pigment painted only on the outside before weaving the basket. The later, turn of the 20th century dyed ash splints are dipped in dye and thus show the color both inside and out. Both of these early basket styles are relatively uncommon in VT/NH and even less common with a good provenance placing them here in the 19th century. (Photo to the right)
Another important basket type is the coiled basket. Even more elusive than early beadwork, coiled basketry is only known from two areas in the Northeast, the Passamaquoddies and a single family in Northwestern VT. These are tiny items, made from carefully selected and prepared horse-hair, similar to the much more well known Thono O’odam tourist wares. As with most local wares, there is no historical interest in these beautiful tiny baskets, and we await the continuation of this tradition by young members of the VT basket making family.
Interested in Learning more about the Indigenous Art of Vermont?