Jennifer Neptune, left, director of the Penobscot Nation Museum, and Gretchen Faulkner, director of the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine Orono, received a $100,000 grant to develop a lexicon of terminology and images for Wabanaki basketry. Courtesy of the University of Maine.

For years, Jennifer Neptune has seen Wabanaki baskets misidentified and mislabeled in museums across the country.

She has seen museums confuse Mohawk and Wabanaki baskets because they were unable to tell the difference between the styles. She can sometimes look at a basket and know exactly who made it, but the work is not credited. She once even saw a beautiful Penobscot basket labeled as originating in the Philippines.

“It’s disheartening,” Neptune said. “For us, these people are our ancestors and our relatives and sometimes we know them. It does matter to us.”

Neptune, director of the Penobscot Nation Museum, and Gretchen Faulkner, director of the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine Orono, recently received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the creation of an online lexicon with images and terminology related to Wabanaki basketry, which they hope will reduce errors in identification and preserve ancestral knowledge.

It will be the first comprehensive resource of its kind.

“These baskets are important to our culture and who we are,” said Neptune, who is herself a Penobscot basket maker. “We want accurate information out there and being passed on.”


Indigenous art and voices have long been overlooked and excluded from cultural institutions. In recent weeks, several museums across the country have covered, closed or removed displays of artifacts from federally recognized Native American and Native Hawaiian groups in response to new regulations that require museums to obtain consent from tribes before displaying or performing research on cultural items.

While Wabanaki baskets can be found at museums across the country, the weavers themselves often have not been invited to participate in cataloguing those pieces. Faulkner said the Hudson Museum has a long history of collaborating with Wabanaki basket makers, and the University of Maine and the Penobscot Nation signed a memorandum of understanding in 2018 that, among other things, said they would continue to work together on documenting, cataloguing and digital sharing of Penobscot collections and items of cultural heritage.

“We’re trying to offer other institutions a model for engaging with the Wabanaki community on their cultural heritage,” Faulkner said.

The grant, which has a two-year deadline, also comes at a time when the tribe’s museum on Indian Island is planning a major expansion. It will move from tiny brick building to a space in a new community building that is under construction. The museum is currently closed to focus on moving its collection and working on the lexicon. Neptune hopes it will reopen in the spring of 2025. The grant also will provide the museum with a computer and a collection management system so it can digitize its collection.

“It just opens all kinds of doors for us,” Neptune said.



Faulkner described the lexicon as “a visual dictionary.”

The first step in the process is cataloguing the significant number of brown ash and sweetgrass baskets in the Hudson Museum and Penobscot Nation Museum collections. Then a curatorial team with representatives from the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq communities will write the descriptions. The project will ultimately live on the Hudson Museum’s website, where both professionals and the public can access it.

“Many communities have traditional knowledge about these pieces, and we’re trying to gather that traditional knowledge in the curation of our holdings,” Faulkner said. “The Penobscot Nation also has significant holdings of Wabanaki baskets. By combining them visually to create the lexicon, we can identify various works that will be part of the type standards for the lexicon.”

Neptune said the lexicon will show examples of baskets that might have been widely sold many years ago for very specific purposes. For example, she said one basket was made for women in the Victorian era to store hair from their brushes, and another was meant to hold collar stays.

“There were lots of baskets that were really specialized for certain uses that we sold outside of our communities,” she said. “But also inside our communities, there’s baskets that were made to store fish scales, there were corn washing baskets, there were certain gathering baskets. You can easily lose that knowledge of what they were and what they were used for and even who made them.”

The lexicon will also document precise techniques. Neptune described a decorative curl that has one name when it is more open, another when it is tighter and a third when it is upside down. The curatorial team will have the opportunity to add their own languages to the lexicon, so those names will be recorded and remembered.


And some baskets have signature details that indicate they came from one family or one maker. The lexicon also will provide an opportunity to recognize those makers and preserve their knowledge of the craft.

“Times are changing,” Neptune said. “It used to be that most families had basket makers in them, and you were immersed in that in our community growing up. Your mom, your grandmother, your aunts made baskets. You learned the terminology, and you learned things just by being in that family. It’s not the same as it was 20 years ago or even 15 years ago. I’ve noticed a lot of younger people don’t know that information because nobody taught them or they don’t have basket makers anymore in their family.”

Artists and leaders are working to pass down the tradition with school programs and community workshops. This lexicon could be a teaching resource or a source of inspiration.

“All it takes is one person to pass away with that knowledge, and it’s gone,” Neptune said. “That is something concrete that we can leave for future generations to help them.”

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