Richard Silliboy, of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, comes from a family of basketmakers going back several generations. He started making baskets when he was a child and today his work is sought after by collectors from around the world. In 2017 Silliboy crafted what is thought to be the world's largest potato basket as part of an exhibition at the Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum that highlights contributions of the Micmac Tribe to potato harvesting in The County. The exhibition received support from MaineCF’s Aroostook County Fund.

MaineCF visual storyteller Thalassa Raasch caught up with Silliboy earlier this year at his workshop in Littleton, Maine. He started off by telling her about the Wabanaki creation myth:

The Wabanaki creation story is not like Adam and Eve. It is Gluskap who is our creator, the creator of the Wabanaki, the People of the Dawn. He shot an arrow in the brown ash tree and that’s where the Natives come out of.

So ash is very spiritual.

I come out here [to my workshop] and work with the brown ash and it’s almost like praying.

How did you get started making baskets?

Mother raised eight of us. My first job was to pick up the shavings, to fill up the tub with shavings and take it outside. I had to get a permit to burn my shavings. I’ve been burning shavings since I was five years old.

Then my job was holding the flashlight for the boys when they pounded wood at night. Of course it was 15-20 below zero and the trees would be cracking, and I’d be out holding this big flashlight – I was seven or eight years old – shining the light around.

I got old enough that I could start weaving the sides [of the baskets]. It was hard for me to get the shape, but once the shape was started from the bottom, I could weave up the sides. 

And I was always carrying wood. I would go out into the woods with my brother Matthew. He would look at every tree in the woods – he was very fussy – then he’d come back up through and he’d take this one and that one, all the best ones. Anyway, I’d walk all day and carry wood half the day. Even at a very young age I’d carry heavy sticks of ash. 

My brother Joe was just the opposite. He wasn’t fussy at all. If it was good enough for Matthew to look at and notch into, it was good enough for Joe to make baskets out of. If I went with him, it was just lug, lug, lug. 

My brother John, he and I would go out and get ash, usually in the winter time, take a sled, take tea and sandwiches. We’d go out and find a place to cut. And he’d build a fire. That’d be my job, firekeeper, tea maker. I would melt snow to get water for the tea. He would split the logs down right there in the woods and he would hew them down so that they were almost ready for the draw shave. Then he’d tie a bundle together and put it on the sled and we’d haul that out. 

I got rebellious at 13 years old, didn’t like people to tell me what to do. My oldest brother thought he was the boss of everybody. One day he yelled at me about not doing something right; I told him to do it himself. And I got up and put my coat on and left. I moved out when I was 13. 

Where did you go?

To my sister’s. I had finished school and had a lot of jobs and such. There was always something to do.

You said you came back to basketmaking when you were 40?

Around 1985, I was about 37, 38 years old. I realized it was a dying art. And I knew that I knew how to make baskets, but I just never had an incentive to do so. When I realized that it was a dying art, I said, “Well, I know how to do this.” I was selling everyone else’s baskets anyway, at shows, the Maine Festival, mall shows. I would do the malls in Portland, Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn, one in New Hampshire.

I was a little fussy and my baskets were a little different. I nailed my baskets for the first six months and then decided it was more traditional to wrap them.

Where did you get the idea to make the world’s largest potato basket?

The treasurer of the agricultural museum, Barry Campbell, and I went to school together. When the school was turned into the Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum, we talked about it for quite a while and then decided to do it [with the encouragement of Pat Cunningham]. We told the Maine Community Foundation. Of course I’m not a grant writer, so I called a friend of mine up in Presque Isle, and she agreed to help.

I said I could weave the basket in two or three days. Thing was, I’d pound a stick of wood that was an inch and a half wide and seven feet long and saw how long it took me to pound this little piece. I had a three-pound sledge hammer and I had to switch to a four-pound sledgehammer in order to hit the wood hard enough to separate the splints. But then I had to throw away all the thin splints. All I could use were the thick ones.

They wouldn’t hold up?

Yes, so anyway it took a lot longer. It took one month.

Did you have people helping you?

My youngest daughter helped me make the bottom; we were six hours making the bottom of that basket. Then my daughter from Nova Scotia came over on vacation, she and her husband. I put them to work. She did all the photography. Her husband had never made baskets. I had him working on the shaving horse and pounding wood. “When you get out of here, you should know how to prepare wood.” Anyway, we worked away at it. My oldest daughter, she came up a few times and helped out a little bit too.

The art of basketmaking is not entire baskets. What you’re doing is that little circle, about four inches circumference all at once, and then you move to the next one. The trick is to weave that splint and hold it so it doesn’t move out again. A lot of people don’t pay attention and lose the shape. What I do is focus in that little circle place and do a good job and continue to work.

Potato baskets have double bottoms for strength. A good potato picker could use the basket two years, two seasons.

How many trees did it take to make the potato basket?

I went to the woods about four times just for the handle, trying to find a piece of wood that would be a handle. I think I had six good-sized logs, seven feet long, because I’d thrown a lot of stuff to one side, thinner stuff. I was very picky in what I took.

It was a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, a lot of hard work.

What does it mean to you to have a room in the museum devoted to Micmac artists?

It’s something the tribe never got recognition for. It was making the potato baskets that helped the harvest go so much faster. And we helped the farmers. They would take a farm truck, put sides up on it, sides for hauling stuff, and put a canvas over it and they would go as far as [the reservations] in Nova Scotia, 450 miles, to get a truckload of Natives and bring them over.

Some of these people came over with absolutely no money in their pocket. When they went home, they had absolutely no money in their pocket – not all of them, a few might have saved a few dollars. Some might have a new pair of jeans or a new pair of boots from the money that they earned. Even when they got here, they’d have to borrow money to get by for the first week and that took a lot of their pay. And sometimes they got here early enough that they couldn’t work for a week or so.

Of course they were growing 240,000 acres. They had to harvest all that crop in six weeks. Six weeks, six days a week: you know you’re not going to get that many good days. You break that down, it’s about a million barrels a day. A lot of Natives did that work.

That’s an important part of the story.

It sure is. There was one lady come over and she’d pick a hundred barrels in a day. She was tall and skinny. The last time she was over, she sprained her wrist the first day. The second day she picked with one hand. She didn’t count her tickets. When you filled a barrel, you put the ticket on it. Anyway she picked one-handed all day long and the next day, when they brought her tickets back, she had picked 92 barrels.

She sounds like a legend.

I think my best day was 86, 87 barrels, something like that.

So what does it mean to you to be represented in the museum?

With the recognition that the Maine Community Foundation has given the museum, the recognition that we’re getting from the Internet, people coming in, word of mouth: I get a lot of pats on the back and people say, “I’ve seen your baskets!”

For more background on Richard Silliboy, visit his website.