Preserving the Art of Indigenous Basket Weaving in the United States

Meet Theresa Secord. She is a 63-year-old Penobscot basket weaver and entrepreneur from the state of Maine in the United States of America. Theresa began her basket weaving journey on Indian Island as an apprentice under the late Madeline Tomer Shay, a Penobscot elder, when she was 30 years old. Her baskets are sold under the brand Wikepi Baskets.

Theresa Secord (Photo: Courtesy of Steve Wewerka)

The Penobscot are an Indigenous people from the Northeastern Woodlands region in North America. They have been weaving and selling baskets using ash wood and sweet grass for over 200 years, providing a vital source of income to the weavers. However, due to dwindling numbers of aging artisans, Penobscot basket weaving had become endangered. To combat and revive the traditional art, in 1993, Theresa helped found the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, bringing the average age of the 125 basketmakers from 63 to 40.

Her brand, Wikepi Baskets, comes from “wikepi, the Penobscot word for “weaver,” as well as “ash tree,” which is the primary material used in her basket weaving. At 40 years old, it was another Penobscot elder who endeared Theresa with her Indian name, Wikepi, explaining that she is the “one that binds everyone together.”

Sweet grass collar basket (Photo: Courtesy of Theresa Secord)

Theresa’s artistic work and advocacy for the preservation of traditional practices and cultural heritage have been honored several times. Among the most notable is the National Heritage Fellowship, a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2016. This year, she was granted a prestigious Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship to work in basketry and the local Indigenous language with an apprentice.

As a participant of the WIPO Training, Mentoring and Matchmaking Program on Intellectual Property for Women Entrepreneurs from Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, Theresa has been documenting the distinct traditional weaves of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes in Maine -- a first-time endeavor by an Indigenous person with a uniquely native perspective.

Wooden hand tools handed down to Theresa. The white patina area shows generations of use, with sharpened blades made of watch spring or clock spring steel. (Photo: Courtesy of Theresa Secord)

Through her work for national Native arts organizations Theresa continues to help others achieve their own artistic goals and economic self-sufficiency. She has taught more than a dozen apprentices how to weave ash tree and sweet grass baskets. In fact, not only does she use wooden forms and tools from the late 1800s, inherited from her great-grandmother, she is also ensuring the continuation of the endangered art within her own family, starting with her oldest son Caleb, now 30, having taught him how to weave since he was five years old.

We have a saying here, ‘How can I be a good ancestor?’ It’s been my philosophy this past year as I’ve tried to model a sense of cultural continuity, despite the challenges of the times.

Theresa Secord, traditional Penobscot basket weaver and creator of the brand Wikepi Baskets
Left: Small Barrel Basket, Center: Penobscot Sewing Basket, Right: Hopi Blue Indigenous Corn (woven “ear of corn” basket of ash wood with sweet grass trim). Some examples of Theresa’s work. (Photos: Courtesy of Theresa Secord)

The situation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the temporary closure of many museums and related exhibitions, disrupting traditional marketing avenues. In the meantime, Theresa focuses her entrepreneurial efforts on developing her online presence. Her new website serves as an online exhibition and features some of her recent baskets, allowing Theresa to reach her markets even while museums and related events are temporarily closed or postponed.

Theresa continues to receive personalized guidance on intellectual property issues under the mentoring phase of WIPO’s program. One of her next big goals is to register her brand name - Wikepi Baskets - and her new logo featuring the symbols of the basket weaving art for which she is renowned: ash tree, sweet grass and a traditional Penobscot design.


Wikepi Baskets logo (Image: Courtesy of Theresa Secord)