Mary Mitchell Gabriel

https://www.arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/mary-mitchell-gabriel

Mary Gabriel, Passamaquoddy Basketmaker and National Heritage Fellow, was 86 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1994.

 

 

My mother gave me away when I was two years old to my grandparents. She just didn’t want me.  Even as I grew up and older, she still don’t want me.  But my grandparents loved me.  I think I would not have been very happy even after I grew up if I knew I didn’t have anyone.  Every time I think of my grandparents, I’m happy.  They loved me much.

My grandfather will take me out in a canoe, and we’ll go either fishin’ or even once, when he went hunting for muskrats, and he’ll take some traps, and he knows just where to go. Louis Lake here, and the next one, Long Lake, and the other side, Big Lake.  That’s where I was brought up.

My grandfather was a good hunter.  He made canoes, ax handles, snow shoes and all the stuff.  I saw him when he was doing it.  It seems just nothin’ to him.  Just like me with baskets, I imagine.  He used to take me across from there to Dana Point, you know, to go to school.  Sometimes, it’d be windy, and I was afraid.  I’m not afraid when I’m with him.

My grandmother was a basketmaker.  She’s the one that showed me how to make baskets when I was ’bout, maybe 7 or 8 years old.  She taught me how to braid the grass, you know, to weave the baskets around.

She’d usually make big baskets, clothes baskets, big round ones, picnic baskets, those were round ones also, and strong. That’s what she made mostly. Very seldom did she make the small ones. She was a smart person. She was always busy. If she was not making baskets she was sewing, making clothes for herself and for me.

She was really something. She was very, very wise. And she was a good cook.  She never taught me how to cook. But she did teach me how to make baskets, and that’s better than teaching how to cook.

My grandfather was a guide in the summer time.  That’s how he got his money.  He was guiding a William Lyman Underwood from New York, the one that makes the typewriters.  He was a guide for him for many years.  He even took him to New York with him.  When he went, I get lonesome for him.

There was an apple orchard there, different kind of apples here and there.  He takes them and put ’em in barrels in the cella’.  They also, like when they make baskets, they go across the lake, but it’s a lot of little islands, small islands.  He goes through there and swap the baskets for potatoes, any vegetable.  He’d bring them up, put ’em in the big barrels, ’cause he had to, you know, it’s hard to get things in wintertime from there.

He used to go fishin’, he knows just when those white perch were spawning, you could see the little things just stickin’ out from the water.  They don’t jump.  And he’ll take his canoe, he has a line already with 4 or 5 hooks on one.

I don’t know how he can do it, but he hauls ’em in.  They just throw that into the middle of those fish that’s spawning.  Course I couldn’t do it, because he has to chase ’em, see, the canoe is goin’ toward them, they go a little, you know, chasin’.  I couldn’t do it.  I know how to fish, but not them.

I wanna do whatever he does.  He’ll be skinning them, so I says, “let me help you.”  He says, “Wait ’til I get a small one.”  And I know what he meant.

He wouldn’t let me, those are boys, because of that scent, they, he’s afraid I might cut it, and the muskrat wouldn’t be any good.  ‘Cause we eat ’em, we eat, oh yeah, we eat them, everybody here eats them.

I don’t know, we got by.  He kills deer and I used to remember that my grandmother and I and other people, they’ll go together, and camp out.  And someplace, where they have cranberries.  They make a lean-to.  We’d take bushels and bushels of cranberries.  We eat them a lot.  She would cook them a little bit with molasses.  I’m still doin’ it now, with molasses, cinnamon, sugar.

We used to go and watch.  I used to hear them telling stories, but at the time, I never paid much attention, about what happened, I guess, long time ago.  About how they were attacked by, I guess Mohawks, or something.  I never had much attention to ’em.

As I grow older, I was told that the Mohawks, they don’t like us, you know.  I was there the time about the prayer meetings.  We went two buses, we went there to see them.  And they were very glad to see us.  But you still feel that like what happened years ago, you remember that.

The Catholic religion was pounded into us, you know, to all of us, so everybody was Catholic.  My sister could tell you a lot of stuff about what happened. She said that, one time, a missionary came and he told the Indians that they were going to gather in the church or whatever they had at that time, and he told the Indians not to bring any weapons.  And I guess one of them sneaked one in.

Anyway, when they were all in there,  she said, they started killing off the Indians.  So one jumped on the missionary, and he says, “You’re coming with us.”  And I guess he killed him.  That was along here somewhere, I don’t know where.  It must be a long, long time ago, it passed from one Indian to, you know, as they grow older.

Not all of them speak to us.  They just, what do you call that?  What do you call it when people don’t like the others, that’s not as good as you are, or somethin’?  Prejudice, I guess that’s what you call it.

I am an Indian. I’m very proud of it. But long time ago, the people here used us so rotten and called us names and everything, we were beginning to think that we are not that good. That was foolish, I’ll tell ya, to think that way. Now I don’t think that way.

Downtown, the White people, even the priest.  We had some priest that was like that.  I can remember that.  You know, thinking, if they didn’t like us, if the priest didn’t like us, why did he come?  Why didn’t he go stay away?

I remember one of ’em, years ago, he called the little boys, because they wouldn’t cut the Indian boys’ hair downtown.  They say they were lousy – they had lice – and they wouldn’t cut their hair.  So, the priest called these little boys animals.  That I know.  I know that, I experienced it myself.  Because they had long hair, he called ’em animals.

Now the kids could go to Waterville or Calais to have their hair cuts, but not here.  I got awfully angry at him.  I said, “Who are you to call these children animals?”  I said,  “Why don’t you take these boys to Calais, or somewhere to have their hair cut, so you won’t have to call them that, animals.”  I was so angry at him. And that I remember.  I was maybe, 25, 30 years old then.

I thought, they say they had bed bugs, or something like that.  How can the Indians have bed bugs at that time?  They didn’t have no beds.  Everything that we have here, the sickness of every kind, the White people brought it.  We didn’t have any.  We just died of old age.  That priest, he didn’t like me.

Now I think just as much of myself as the next person. Because I know God thinks that way. God don’t like one person because they aren’t Catholic or because they are Catholic. God loves everybody. That’s the way I’m thinking. That’s the way I believe.

There’s Indian prayers. There was my great aunt Cecelia Newell, my grandfather’s sister.  She was a good basket maker.  Oh, I loved that woman.  She could make anything.  She was a jolly old person.  She’ll be doin’ these, when she’s makin’ baskets, we used to sit ‘em on your lap.  I can’t do that now because my stomach’s so big, but she’ll be doin’ that, makin’ baskets and hummin’ this Indian chantin’.  She’ll just start dancin’ by herself.

My daughter, my youngest daughter, she lives in Bangor, she never lived here, because I lived in Bangor for more than 25 years.  But I came back.  And she didn’t.  She got married there and she’s still there.  She wasn’t interested in anything about Indians.  Anyway, somethin’ took over her all of a sudden she start talkin’ about Indians, Indians.  She studied Indians, studied everything.

What happened to me, I’ve had a bad, bad marriage.  When my grandmother died, I thought, “Well, nobody loves me.”  I lost the world, you know, I mean, I lost everything.  Except my kids.

One of my oldest daughters, she was goin’ to Husson College, she was the first Indian girl that went to Husson, that graduated here in Princeton, and went on to Husson and she graduated there.  And Sylvia right behind her, and Claire, she went there also.

I can’t remember too much now, because I wanna block everything, when I left.  I couldn’t stand it here.  My mother was abusing me, imagine that, a grown person.  I couldn’t abuse my girls, I wouldn’t think of abusing my girls, but she hit me any time she feels like it, “You’re doin’ this, and don’t do that, don’t you say that.”

All of a sudden, it’s “Why do I stay?”  So I called my daughter in Bangor that, I said, “Alice, I wanna get out of here.”

So, she says, “Okay, you’ll come and we’ll get an apartment.”

That’s when I left.  That’s when I want to leave everything, everything, even my thoughts, I blocked everything, see?

I shouldn’t have did that because maybe I could have remembered a lot of things now, if I hadn’t made myself that way.  I just couldn’t.  Once in a while, somethin’ will come out.  That’s why I can’t remember much of anything that happened here.  Oh, gee, I wish I could have remembered more.  My sister can, because she stayed with my mother.  She didn’t abuse anyone else but me.

I blocked out a lot of things when my husband left me, and did the things he did to me. I wanted to block out everything after that. My mother didn’t stay with my father, all that stuff isn’t too good for me. I don’t think I would have ever lived through it if it hadn’t been for my grandfather and grandmother. I was lucky to have two nice people who took care of me.

My grandmother, she’ll just tell me two or three things and I was a fast learner.  What made her a good teacher?  She made beautiful baskets.  She taught me.  I watched her.  I would just start a little one.  I remember one time.  I made one, a little square, and as I go along, it got round, on the end of it.  It’s round.  I made one like those about a month ago.

My daughter, Clare, she learned how, she’s doin’ pretty good, very good. She said, “I’ve never seen one like that before in all my life.”

I says, “Well, I have.”

So, I made one like that, and at that time, you don’t make white baskets, we’d dye them, dye the ash.  And I can remember, it was green and purple.  And I don’t remember whether the standers are purple, or the weave.  But anyway, it was iridescent, small weaves.  I still can remember that.  I don’t know where that basket would be, now.

When I taught Clare, we sat here and I almost made her cry, I think, her face was all red, and she kept right on, she never stopped. I said, “Don’t do this, you do this. This is the way you do it. Not this way.”

I kept at her. I think she almost quit. But she never did. She kept right on. And I told her the kind of material to use and not to use. Now, she laughs at it because I made her do it.

My grandmother used to take me in the fall, she can’t read or write, she can’t even talk English, my grandfather can.  But he can’t read.  He used to, when I went to school, he’d say, “Come on, read to me.”  And he wanted to learn, oh, so much.

And I just didn’t want to sit still.  I was just young, see.   And I’ve thought of that so many times now, I would have, teach him day and night, if he was alive now.

My grandmother was sick, and, see, Indians knew if somebody’s goin’ to get better or not.  They knew.  And my grandmother was one that, we didn’t think she was goin’ to live.  And my grandfather was mopin’ around,  he’d just sit outside.

Someone told me that, “Your grandfather said that he talked to God, and asked Him to take him first.”  He didn’t want my grandmother to go first, ’cause he couldn’t stand it.  And He, God must have answered him because right then, in a few weeks time, my grandmother got up from the bed, from the death bed, you’d call it.

And he got sick, just like if one is goin’ this way and the other is goin’ the other.  Her and I stayed together until she went. Then I got married, and that’s a bad story.

My grandmother was sick. My mother didn’t take care of her, I did.  She didn’t want my mother to take care of her.  It was up the Point.  I don’t know how I done it, how I could take care of her.

She knew, when my mother lived here, see, we lived up there, and she knew when my mother’s coming, without seein’ her.  She says, “Your mother’s coming.”  She says, “I wish she would stay where she belongs.”  When she comes, she says, “I’m sick.”  It made her sick all over, see.   Not just mind.

The Indians are very spiritual.  My grandfather didn’t even go, didn’t want to go to church.  Sundays, he’ll pack his whatever, sometimes he just gets in a canoe, takes off.  That’s his church.

And a lot of ’em, I don’t know what the others think, but I know that’s the way my grandfather was.  We are spiritual, I believe, because we see things.  Well, I didn’t, but the older ones did.  They see even little people.  They can’t go near them, but they see them.

Like at night up the Point, you know, when somebody’s goin’ to get married, you can hear them, you know, making noise like Indians would.  And they dance.  They’re whoopin’ it up like, that’s when somebody’s gonna get married.  And then also, if a person is going to die, they could hear them singing hymns like Indians would sing.  We call them hymns, I don’t know what you call ’em.

My sister sings ’em, some of ’em.  And she can also say some of the Indian prayers.  Up the road, a young girl was brought up by her grandmother, and she can say them, she can say the Indian prayers.  I can’t, not the way they can.  It’s just going away gradually.

A long time ago, if you did anything to the Indian, they can make anything die right there.  You wouldn’t  want to cross ’em, some of ’em.  I think they still believe.  They believed in angels.  They believed  in the mountains, they think they’re sacred mountains.  A lot of ’em would rather go in the woods than go to church.  I don’t know who they were because I was young, see.  But I know my grandfather did, you know, he takes off, up the Point.

We don’t go nowhere.  The sisters came up there every three months, a year, the nuns.  Some of ’em are very nice.  It’s just like the people.  There was not even a road, two cars couldn’t go in.  It’s two miles in there.  If you meet a car, somebody’s gotta go back.  And sometimes, if it’s too windy, you can’t go.

The priest comes once a month and I can remember he used to bring candy.  And all the kids, all of us run to the priest, just for the little piece of candy.

The teachers, the sisters are, if they see fit, they’re gonna slap your hand. Even when my son was off to go to school there, he’d come home with all his hands red.  And I’d call the sister up, I says to her, “Why on Earth do you have to hit?”

And then she’ll hang up on me, she says, “I don’t want to hear it.”  Boy, if that happened to my son, why I love my kids.

Basketmaking just comes naturally, I guess.  Sometimes, before I start making a basket I know what I want, but then it turns out I made something else than what I wanted. Okay, so I’ll make it this way then. That’s why I’ll never understand it, really.

You can create your own.  I had two women, sisters, each one will say, “You wanna come make baskets with me?  I’ll show you more,” and I’m glad.

The other girls my age would be playing.  I’m making baskets, see?

So she made a tray, just about that high, with a bale, it’s round, see?  And with a handle.  Then she said, well, “I’m gonna make a book, a basket to carry a book,” They’re just narrow, so she couldn’t carry any more than one.

I don’t know why she did that, but I did that too.   And then she made a hat, little hats.  I’m goin’ ’round with these people, and I know them all, you see.  This is a small community.  And If I don’t make ’em, I just watch her. After, I’ll go home and do one.  See?  It’s easy.  It’s easy when you know how to make baskets.

My grandmother just makes ’em.  You swap ’em for something.  When we were living up there, there was a lot of maple trees, up on the hill.  They make maple syrup, and then candy.  I used to love to do that, I used to love to go there.  There was still snow on the ground.  Make great big pot, great big ones.

My mother did the selling.  My mother would buy them, or someone would make ’em for her.  And she’ll put ’em on her living room table, and she’ll sell them.  I can remember, I guess I just sold one at a time.  I never had too many, because I can’t, I’m too poor to buy the stuff.  I don’t have anyone to do it for me.  I’m always poor.

Now, some of ’em went from  her to Pleasant Point over to get sweet grass, and my mother happened to be going, and she got two, three people to go with her.  She wouldn’t ask me.  I lived not too far from her.  I’d a gotten my kids first, before I give a ride to someone else.

When I start makin’ them, then all of a sudden, I could sell ’em.  Now, and then I went back, then I went away, but I did make baskets when I was in Bangor.  I found a person that would bring it for me, and I sent ’em to anyone that wants ’em.

I said when I left here, I wasn’t comin’ back until I was brought back in a box.  But I found a man that was a beautiful, beautiful man.  Mild.  My kids love ‘im.  We found one another in Bangor.  Sometimes we come and visit here.  And he loved this place, Princeton.  He loved it.

He was about to retire, himself.  I was workin’ at Ample Knitting Mills, then, in Brewer.  For eight years, I guess.  Then he kept talkin’ about comin’ here to live.

I says, “I don’t wanna go there.”  Finally, I gave in.

He says, “If you go, I’ll buy you a trailer.”

I says, “Okay.”  ‘Cause many years, I’ve been praying my heart out for a place of my own.  I never had one.  So, we came here.  He could do most anything.

When we were there, he said, “Would you like to travel?”

I said, “No,  I’m scared.”

And then I saw the Volkswagen camper.  And I said, “Look at that. Isn’t that beautiful?”              He says, “That’s pretty.”

So one day, he said, “You’re going to have a Volkswagen camper,” he says, “I sent for it in Germany.”

That was the first one in Bangor, Volkswagen camper.  And we had that, and we went everywhere.  Canada, where the Indians are, New Mexico, Oregon, we went everywhere.  And we didn’t have much money.  We went anyway.

When he was gone, this was all dilapidated, here.  I mean all the ceiling was hangin’.  Everything was no good, you know, they was gonna tear it down.  And somebody said, “No, give it to Mary.”

So I asked my son, I says, “Come here, look at this, see if you can fix it.”  He says, “Yuh.”  We swapped my trailer for this.  That’s when I swapped it.  So now I own this.

I’ll tell you one thing, though, about baskets. Some person’s baskets would sell where another person’s baskets can’t. Everything is a mystery to me, just like the old Indians used to say, “I wonder how, I wonder why this happens,?” I don’t know.

There’s something about the baskets, you know. Sacred. It’s something to that effect, anyway.  Like an old woman once said, “Every basket is revered.” She says, “Because every time you start a basket you have to make a cross, then another cross.” You don’t just go around, you make the cross.

When we went to a meeting last year, at the University of Maine, I didn’t have too many baskets.  I had just about, oh, not even a dozen.  Other people had a whole mess, whole long table full.  I went in late, in this place.

I said, “Where will I put my baskets?”  And this woman that’s the head  of it, she said, “Bring ’em over here.”  I had just the end, the other one had the rest of it.  In about 10, 15 minutes, my baskets were gone.  I couldn’t believe it.  Thank God.  I couldn’t believe it.  They were gone.

Just like the two I took over here last week, I had the two great big 10 inch, all sweet grass, and I made four half moons in the middle, you know?  Two red and two black.  I didn’t want to sell them.  I wanted to take ’em to Washington with me.  I’d rather do that.  But the girl from the Abby Museum came over, and says, “Mary, I wanna buy baskets, these two from you.”

I said, “Kathy, I’m gonna double mine now.  I can’t sell mine wholesale anymore.”

She says, “I don’t care, I want ’em.”

I says, “Well, okay, four hundred for one, three fifty for the other.”  She brought out a check before I could say, “No.”

She gave me, I don’t know, many hundred dollars worth of orders.  I couldn’t do it because I wouldn’t dare sell ’em the same price as I sold ’em to them before.  But she told a friend of mine, she says, “I woulda bought them baskets at any price.”

So, I says, “Now they tell me.”   I was satisfied.  I know them all.  I also sold one to, the time I had the other award, I sold one to one of the judges.

Everybody seems to love my baskets. My grandchildren, they are dying to get some baskets but I can’t make enough to go all around, and I still want to sell them.

Oh, Sylvia,  my daughter, is beautiful basket maker, and Claire, too. You should see their baskets.  We sell our baskets for a shop in Camden.  He had a lot of my baskets.  I guess they’re all gone.  If I ask him right now if I want two or three hundred, he’ll send me the money.  But I wouldn’t do it, no way. Especially now, with my head, it’s going to be better.  I feel confident it’s going to be, because my angel’s standing there.

Now every basket I make I thank God that I was able to make this basket. Now it’s my love, it’s my life. If I didn’t have this I’d miserable. Just like a woman asked me when I went to Washington, she asked me, “Is this your hobby?” And I looked at her and said, “Hobby?” I said, “This is my life!”

I’m always asking God, “Please, don’t let me fail.”  He knows I love my baskets.  I know, I like every basket I make.  I hate to sell ‘em.  Just like them two I sold, even though I got $750.  If I could help it, I would rather make them and give it to each one of my children, so, when I leave, they’ll have ‘em.

What has given me a good life? Baskets and my children. That’s what’s given me a good life. I have seven children and I love them all. And they love my baskets.

 

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