1976 Festival Of American Folklife 8 (Mohawk)

Production Date: 
Run Time: 

Establishing shot:
Named locations:
Major themes covered: 
Native activities shown: 
1976 Festival of American Folklife 8 features edited footage of on-screen demonstrations and interviews (interviewer is off-screen and unidentified) with Mohawk basket-makers Mary Adams (“Kawennatakie”), her son, Mike Adams, and Sally Ann Adams (“Smithsonian American Art Museum,” n. pag.). Mary Adams discusses the process of basket-making while making a basket, and later exhibits and talks briefly about the different kinds of baskets she makes. Mike Adams talks about basket-making, while pounding out a black ash tree to make basket splints. Sally Ann Adams weaves sweet grass while explaining how woven sweetgrass is used in basket-making.

The audio quality of the footage is poor; the picture quality (black and white) is low contrast and “washed out,” as was common with consumer-grade videotape recordings of the time.

Individuals Named: Mary Adams; Mike Adams

Native language spoken:  None (the sound quality is poor, so there are perhaps some Iroquois language words that are inaudible; according to Stock, Mary Adams spoke little English, so Adams could be speaking Mohawk/ Iroquois at times) (n. pag.)

Noteworthy elements:  Mary Adams (1917-1999), a member of the Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, was born on Cornwall Island, Ontario Canada (other sources place her birthplace on the Mohawk Akwesasne Reserve in Ontario). Mary Adams lived for many years on the St. Regis and Akwesasne Reservations along the St. Lawrence River and the New York/Canada border, and died in Fort Covington, New York (Thornburn 90; “Red Fancy Basket” n. pag; “Iroquois Basketry Thrives,” n. pag.; “Adams, Mary Kawennatakie” n. pag.; “Mary Adams” n. pag.).

Mary Adams’s “traditional” name, “Kawennatakie,” means a “voice coming toward us” (Thornburn 90). Adams was a world-renowned basket-maker who taught other Iroquois peoples her craft (Stock n. pag.). The Writing of Indigenous New England website states that Mary Adams’s baskets "incorporate modern aesthetics and a comment on the Mohawk world-view into the art and process of basketmaking. Every basket illustrates her life story and the debt that basketry as an art form owes to her…In Akwesasne (the Mohawk land around the St. Lawrence river) today, there are more than a hundred Mohawks that practice basketmaking …Through her baskets, Mary Adams showcased her culture and inspired others to take on and continue the trade… Mary Adams expanded and experimented with different designs, colors, and techniques. Despite having to grow up [due to her mother’s death] at the very young age of 10 and support herself and her brother, Adams was able to make baskets to sell for money in addition to expanding on the art form. Mary Adams’ baskets emphasize the unique culture of the Modern Mohawk by combin[in]g different aesthetics: Mohawk, non-native, and Modern American (n. pag.).

The Canadian Women Artists History Initiative lists some of Mary Adams’s many accomplishments: Adams learned how to weave traditional baskets from her mother.  In the 1920's, Adams began to weave ornate splint ash and sweet grass baskets, which she sold as a means to support herself and her brother. In 1934, Adams married and had twelve children. In 1980, the artist presented Pope John Paul II with a basket specially created to honor the beatification of the first Native American woman, Kateri Tekakwitha (Mohawk). In her work, Adams produced increasingly imaginative basket designs and patterns, including her work "Wedding Cake Basket"[.] Adams also taught basket weaving at the Museum on the Mohawk Reservation in St. Regis, Quebec. In 1997, she received an "Excellence in Iroquois Art" award. Adams also participated in a major traveling group exhibition titled "Crossing the Threshold" in 1998 (n. pag.).

The style of Iroquois indigenous basket-making evolved after contact with Europeans in the late eighteenth century. Both the Algonquin and Iroquois peoples replaced their previous style of basketry – which used stitched wood and bark, twining and “plaited matting” – with the “plaited” and wood splint style typical with Swedish and Germanic colonists (“Mary Adams” n. pag.).

Schaghitcock Elder Trudy Lamb Richmond, in her article “Spirituality and Survival in Schaghticoke Basket-Making,” writes about a discussion she had with an unnamed Mohawk basket-maker about the incorporation of sweet grass in their baskets:

"I spoke to a Mohawk basket-maker not long ago and asked her how she felt about weaving sweet grass into her baskets. Sweet grass is used by her people in their ceremonies and like tobacco is believed to have great power. It was used long ago in ceremonial baskets and continued to be important even in those times when basket making became more material and less spiritual…she had thought about this meaning and that was why she always talked to the sweet grass and to her baskets as she made them. She said that she asked forgiveness for having to sell the baskets, but that she needed the money to survive. Using the sweet grass would keep the baskets strong and alive, and she hoped that the people who bought them would appreciate their significance. The basket weaver explained that she never picked the grass without making a tobacco offering. Her people believe that you have to give something for everything you take; even a tobacco offering is an acknowledgment. That is the old way, our way" (129).


Joan Lester states in her 1987 text that “some contemporary Mohawk basket-weavers experiment freely with surface textures, combining traditional shapes with personal expression” (58).

Other notes:

Pritzker, in his A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture and Peoples, describes traditional, cultural and historical practices of the Mohawk and (more broadly) the Iroquois peoples. Pritzker explains that the word “Iroquois” is an adapted word from the (somewhat derogatory) Algonquian name for this group, meaning “real adders” (412). The Iroquois once referred to themselves as “Kanonsionni,” meaning “League of the United (Extended) Household,” and today refer to themselves as “Haudenosaunee,” meaning “People of the Longhouse” (436). The term “Mohawk” comes from an Algonquian word, meaning “eaters of men”; the Mohawk self-designation was “Kaniengehawa,” meaning “People of the Place of Flint” (436).

The Mohawk are among the Iroquois peoples currently living in southern Quebec, on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada (Pritzker 436-7), and on the Saint Regis Reservation in upstate New York (Richmond 143). Pritzker notes other reservations where the present-day Mohawk peoples live, including the Tyendinega Reserve (Deseronto) and Gibson Reserve in Ontario, and the Ganienkeh Reservation, Altoona, New York (439).

The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s website gives a brief description of their history and traditions:

"The Mohawk are traditionally the keepers of the Eastern Door of the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations Confederacy or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Our original homeland is the north eastern region of New York State extending into southern Canada and Vermont. Prior to contact with Europeans the Mohawk settlements populated the Mohawk Valley of New York State. Through the centuries Mohawk influence extended far beyond their territory and was felt by the Dutch who settled on the Hudson River and in Manhattan. The Mohawks’ location as the Iroquois nation closest to Albany and Montreal, and the fur traders there, gave them considerable influence among the other Tribes. This location has also contributed directly to a long and beautifully complicated history" (“Culture and History” n. pag.).

Link to the Program Book for 1976 Festival of American Folklife:

“1976 Festival of American Folklife/Smithsonian Institution, National Park Service.” Smithsonian Research Online. Smithsonian Institution Libraries, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.  http://si-pddr.si.edu/jspui/handle/10088/11053

“1976 Folklife Festival Program Supplement June 16-27.” Smithsonian Research Online. Smithsonian Institution Libraries, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.  http://si-pddr.si.edu/jspui/handle/10088/11053

General information on Iroquois and Mohawk peoples:

“Culture and History.” Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe: Helping Build a Better Tomorrow. n. d., n. pag. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. http://www.srmt-nsn.gov/government/culture_and_history/

Eisenstadt, Peter R., and Laura-Eve Moss, eds. Encyclopedia of New York State, The. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2005. Print.

Jennings, Francis. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from Its Beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. Print.

Johansen, Bruce Elliot, and Barbara Alice Mann, eds. Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Print.

Lyon, William S. Encyclopedia of Native American Healing. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Print.

Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture and Peoples. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Speck, Frank Gouldsmith. The Iroquois: a study of cultural evolution. 2nd ed. Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook, 1955. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. Apologies to the Iroquois. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992. Print.

On Mary Adams and Mohawk basket-making:

“Adams, Mary Kawennatakie.” Canadian Women Artists History Initiative. n.p., 2007. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.

“Iroquois Basketry Thrives.” New York Folklore Society. n.p., 1999. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. http://www.nyfolklore.org/progs/mentproj.html

Lester, Joan. “’We Didn’t Make Fancy Baskets Until We Were Discovered’: Fancy-Basket Making in Maine.” Key into the Language of Woodsplint Baskets, The. McMullen and Handsman. Washington, CT: American Indian Archaeological Institute, 1987. 38-59. Print.

“Mary Adams.” Smithsonian American Art Museum at the Renwick Gallery. n.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. http://americanart.si.edu/search/artist_bio.cfm?ID=26

McMullen, Ann and Russell G. Handsman, eds. Key into the Language of Woodsplint Baskets, The. Washington, CT: American Indian Archaeological Institute, 1987. Print.

“Meet the Masters: Akwesasne Basketmakers.” north country public radio. n.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.

Phillips, Ruth Bliss. Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900. U of Washington P: Seattle, 1998. Print.

Porter, Frank W. Art of Native American Basketry, The: A Living Legacy. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1990. Print.

“Red Fancy Basket.” Writings of Indigenous New England. n.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. http://indnewengland.omeka.net/items/show/110

Quick-to-See Smith, Jaune, et al. “Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar and Sage.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 15.1/2 (1987) : 35-41. JSTOR. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.

Richmond, Trudie Lamb. “Spirituality and Survival in Schaghticoke Basket-Making.” Key into the Language of Woodsplint Baskets, The. McMullen and Handsman. Washington, CT: American Indian Archaeological Institute, 1987. 126-43. Print.

Stock, Michele “Midge”. “Report on a NYFS Mentoring Project.” NYFS Newsletter (Spring-Summer 1999) : n. pag. New York Folklore Society. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.  http://www.nyfolklore.org/progs/mentproj.html

Thornburn, Olivia. “Mary Kawennatakie Adams: Mohawk Basket Maker and Artist.” American Art 15.2 (2001) : 90-95. JSTOR. Web. 26 Feb 2013

There are multiple installments of 1976 Festival of American Folklife documentary footage in the AIFG archives.  1976 Festival of American Folklife 8 is comprised of edited footage from 1976 Festival of American Folklife 7.

--Eric Maynard (Mohegan), 2013