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Micmac basketmakers. Way up in Maine's Aroostook County, nimble fingers keep a traditional craft alive

MAINE'S Indians gained national attention in 1980 through the Maine Indian Claims Settlement, which awarded $81.5 million to some 4,000 members of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet tribes. But most people, including those who live in Maine, do not know about a fourth native American group: the Micmac. Some 1,000 Micmacs live here, more than half of them in the northernmost county of Aroostook.

They are part of a larger family of Micmacs, some 2,000 of whom reside in Boston and some 8,000 more in Canada's Maritime Provinces.

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Like most Micmacs in Aroostook, Donald and Mary Sanipass have spent their lives working at a host of seasonal jobs. ``I'm a laborer,'' says Mary, whose long, graceful hands belie that career. ``I wasn't educated to do anything but make baskets, work in the woods, and pick potatoes.'' For more than a century, work for Micmacs in this region has centered on the potato industry. ``Don and I have done just about every kind of job you can think of having to do with potatoes - cutting seed, weaving [harvest] baskets, picking, sacking, driving a harvester....''

For at least 15 winters the Sanipasses worked together cutting pulp in Maine's lush woods. ``I cut and Mary hauled out using old Pat, the wood horse,'' says Mr. Sanipass. And for as long as they can remember, they have headed south each August along with other family members to rake blueberries in the tawny barrens of Cherryfield, Maine.

Home for these off-reservation Indians is an old logging camp which they have turned into a cozy, if modest, dwelling. Here, surrounded by the woods, some five miles from a small hinterland town named Mapleton, they spend their days making traditional splint baskets out of brown ash. Alongside their home are two tiny ``camps'' that house their brothers, Wolf Sanipass and Harold Lafford. Harold has been a basketmaker most of his life, and learned the trade watching his parents. ``When you ain't got nothing to do, you got to do something,'' he says, his voice heavy with the accent of the Micmac language. ``So I do this. I'm my own boss. Got nobody to tell me nothing. Nobody hollering at me. And nobody paying me - unless I make a basket.''

These highly skilled craftspeople now construct their hardy baskets for shop owners more often than for farms. Maine's potato industry has declined drastically in the last decade, and most of the remaining crop is brought in by mechanical harvesters rather than by hand pickers using potato baskets. Donald, who regularly puts in 14-hour workdays gathering and preparing the wood needed for his craft, says, ``It's no picnic being a basketmaker. It is not what you'd call a good risk thing. But we get by - we keep the Wolf Man off the door.''

These three basketmakers sell their wares to individuals as well as to a wholesale operation known as the Basket Bank - a business established by the Aroostook Micmac Council and developed by their daughter, Marline Sanipass Morey.

The entire Sanipass family has been active in the Micmac Council, headquartered in Presque Isle, some 15 miles from Mapleton. Since the exclusion of Micmacs from the Maine Indian Claims Settlement, the council's primary focus has been on winning ``federal recognition'' of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. Federal recognition would secure for Micmacs the native rights and protections belonging to all recognized Indians in this country.

Sometimes the bigger world comes to their doorstep. Last year the Maine Humanities Council funded a documentary film about Micmac Indian basketmakers in Aroostook County. Entitled ``Our Lives in Our Hands,'' the film features Donald, Mary, Harold, and other family members. It has been shown from the Museum of Natural History in New York to the Smithsonian in Washington. Sometimes, Donald and his children have been on hand to answer questions - demonstrating that they've the gift of gab as well as the gift of hand. Asked how long it takes to make a basket, Donald's son David recently told a film viewer, ``Twenty years - at least that's how long it took me to learn to make a good one.''

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