Gabriel Frey works with a piece of brown ash to create a basket in his home studio. The Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor will host an Indian art market this weekend to highlight Native American artists in Maine and across the Northeast and Canadian Maritimes. Photo by Ashley L. Conti

Jason Brown spent much of his day Thursday going over the final details of the new haute couture outfits that he and his wife, Donna Decontie-Brown, will debut this weekend at the Abbe Museum Indian Art Market in Bar Harbor. The Bangor clothing and jewelry designers are among many Wabanaki artists participating in the market, which will gather as many as 75 Indian artists from 40 tribal nations across North America in downtown Bar Harbor for a weekend celebration of Native culture.

The market will include the things we might expect, like the finely woven baskets that have distinguished Wabanaki cultural expression for generations. There’s also a runway fashion show, the Indigenous Film Festival, a comedy show, music and storytelling, all designed to showcase Wabanaki artists alongside artists representing the Navajo, Chippewa, Cherokee and other nations.

Brown, a Penobscot, said he and his wife will travel to eight to 10 Indian art markets this year. Showing their clothing and jewelry lines close to home and welcoming other artists to Maine are meaningful, he said.

“We’re certainly excited and proud to do a fashion show anywhere, but to do it in our homeland is especially significant for us,” he said. “This market is so important to our culture because it helps shine a spotlight on our region and the Wabanaki people and our long, long, long tradition of our artistry and our designs, our connection to the land and how we take those connections and reinterpret them in our everyday life.”

The celebration begins Friday and continues through Monday, with most market-related activities on Saturday and Sunday on the Village Green, across from the Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor. Museum President and CEO Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko expects between 2,000 and 5,000 people will attend the first-year event. She hopes it grows into something much larger in the future, including juried events with prize money for winning artists. “We are already planning next year, and we are definitely looking at a five-, 10- and 15-year plan, and we hope the show grows far beyond the Village Green in years to come,” she said.

The market comes at a time when more attention is being paid to tribal culture and heritage in Maine. The University of Maine and the Penobscot Nation recently signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize their collaborations and help manage the tribe’s cultural heritage, and the Portland Museum of Art has paid more attention to tribal culture in recent years, including Wabanaki artists in each of its most recent biennial exhibitions. The Maine Historical Society also has include Wabanaki artists in its exhibitions.

Gabriel Frey, a 12th-generation Passamaquoddy basket maker, pulls apart a slab of brown ash to the correct size to create a basket at his studio in his home in Orono in October. Photo by Ashley L. Conti

Tilly Laskey, outreach curator at Maine Historical Society who has been involved with the national Native art scene for the past 30 years, has observed “a huge shift in recognition” in Maine about the value of Wabanaki culture. She thinks the Abbe market will add to that recognition and create economic opportunities for artists. “It’s an exciting time to be in Maine and observing what is happening with native art and culture, and the language is coming back too. A lot of people are singing and telling stories,” she said. “The tribes have never lost their culture. It never went away. It was always there. Now it’s just in a place where people are finally recognizing it, and the Abbe Museum has a huge amount to do with that.”

Indian art markets are common in the American Southwest, the Northern Plains and elsewhere in Indian country, but uncommon in the Northeast. The impetus for the market was watching Wabanaki artists like Jeremy Frey, Theresa Secord, Geo Neptune and Sarah Sockbeson participate in juried markets in the Southwest and bring home top prizes, Catlin-Legutko said. Frey has won Best of Show at the Sante Fe Indian Market and the Heard Indian Market and Fair in Phoenix, only the second artist who has won both shows in the same year and the first time a basketmaker achieved this honor at the Sante Fe Indian Market in its 90-plus year history. He’s also won a $50,000 United States Artists grant, and his baskets are part of the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian. Frey will show his work this weekend in Bar Harbor.

By creating this event, the museum hopes to bring attention to Frey and other Wabanaki artists, and create a competitive Indian art market in the Northeast, Catlin-Legutko said. “The need for it is very clear,” she said. “We know that Wabanaki artists have been traveling west for years and years and years, entering shows and winning. But there is nothing like this in the Northeast.”

About a quarter of the artists participating in this weekend’s celebration are Wabanaki artists, she said. Wabanaki refers to the tribes of Maine, including the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Abenaki, Maliseet and Micmac. The Abbe is dedicated to interpreting the history and cultures of the Wabanaki.

David Schultz, owner of the Arctic and Indian art gallery Home & Away in Kennebunkport and author of the book “Baskets of Time: Profiles of Maine Indian Basket Makers,” said the market will elevate the Indian art market in Maine, “and really puts this state on a national footing that didn’t exist before in regards to Native American art. The Maine artists have really emerged on the national scene. The (basket) weavers have been earning pretty high awards within those markets and received a lot of national attention and recognition. It’s now time for more attention to be paid to Native American art in the state, and this market will do exactly that.”

For the husband-and-wife design team Decontie and Brown, the market represents an opportunity to showcase cultural pride and to demonstrate how Indian artists today are building on traditions but not feeling beholden to them. One of the new creations they will showcase during Saturday’s fashion show is a woven silk formal gown inspired by Maine’s basketmaking tradition and created with a fancy basket in mind.

“We really cannot wait for people to see it,” Brown said, “and we’re thrilled to be showing it for the first time close to home.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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