Luce Fellow Spotlight: Theresa Secord

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a second year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. In 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 and 13 new fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations.

2021 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow: THERESA SECORD

Luce Fellow Theresa Secord at the Santa Fe Indian Market. Photo credit: Steve Wewerka

It is fitting to say that Theresa Secord (Penobscot Nation) has a rock-solid reputation in the world of Wabanaki basketmaking. After earning a master’s degree, she began her professional career as a geologist and was recruited by her tribe to conduct mineral assessments on its vast land holdings.

When the geologist returned home, she began taking Penobscot language classes, where she met Madeline Tomer Shay, a traditional basketmaker and last Penobscot “first-language” speaker. Secord apprenticed under Shay for five years to learn the traditional art of Wabanaki basketry.

Today, Secord is a well-known, award-winning basketmaker who weaves traditional Wabanaki baskets using 1800-era wooden tools passed down to her by her great-grandmother, Philomene Saulis, a fluent Maliseet/Passamaquoddy language speaker and gifted basketmaker.

Secord is the founding director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance (MIBA), a Native American nonprofit organization focused on preserving and extending the art of Wabanaki basketmaking in Maine among the four tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot.

Secord’s great-grandmother, Philomene Saulis, selling Wabanaki baskets in Maine in 1953.

Over the past 20-plus years, Secord has organized countless Wabanaki basketmaking workshops, apprenticeship programs, and markets for and with community members. During these active years, the MIBA established its own art gallery and launched young basketmakers out into national Native American art markets.

Secord’s signature baskets reside in numerous museums and private collections across the country, and she has been honored with a number of awards, including a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts and the First People’s Fund’s Community Spirit Award.

Growing the art of basketmaking and selling

Under Secord’s 21-year leadership at MIBA, the number of Wabanaki basketmakers in Maine tripled from 55 to 150. The organization is also credited with saving the endangered art of ash and sweet grass basketry by making it appealing to a younger audience, with the average age of tribal members engaged in this traditional practice dropping from 63 to 40 years old.

MIBA has helped basketmakers profit from their work, as well. It established long-term annual markets where rural tribal community basketmakers could sell their baskets, keeping alive a 200-year-old economy in Maine.

Theresa Secord’s apprentice Erica Menard (Penobscot) prepares ash for the baskets in their apprenticeship session. Photo credit: Theresa Secord

Secord learned from her mentor Shay and great-grandmother the importance of grooming the next generation of basketmakers. She helped launch a one-year basketmaking apprenticeship that matched basketmakers with apprentices from their own reservation communities. Tribal elders taught younger generations how to make baskets by pounding ash logs, preparing the wood, braiding the sweet grass, and weaving baskets.

According to Secord, many apprentices are now “prolific artists and mentors themselves.” They have exhibited their work in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Phoenix, Arizona, as well as at various museums and cultural events.

Thankfully, for cultural preservation, these apprentices continue to mentor and share their knowledge with a new generation of Wabanaki basketmakers.

The language of basketry

The Luce fellow recognizes that her work is not quite done yet. As Shay reminded Secord before she passed away, traditional Wabanaki basketmakers must also learn the language and oral stories that go along with basketmaking.

“Wabanaki basketry learned and practiced in the absence of our languages is sterile,” says Secord. “It will produce a deep chasm in our inter-generational transfer of knowledge.”

Secord with her apprentice son Caleb Hoffman. Photo credit: Sean Alonzo Harris

To address this gap, Secord is using the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship to work with fluent language speakers and linguists to incorporate the Passamaquoddy/Maliseet language into her Wabanaki basketmaking workshops. She is also creating a new basketry/language workbook (print and digital) to share with community members, tribal language departments, classes, workshops, and language immersion camps.

The language of basketry is extremely specific and descriptive with terms rapidly falling into disuse. That is why Secord says she takes online Passamaquoddy language classes twice a week to better learn the language herself.

“There are spiritual aspects and stories associated with our basketry that cannot be translated,” she explains. “We are trying to identify and document intangibles in the language as elder basketmakers tell stories about gathering materials and weaving.”

Secord says the Luce Fellowship has come at the perfect time. “The Wabanaki communities are now highly focused on language revitalization work. Now is the time to preserve and reclaim our Indigenous basketry in our own languages.”

Grateful for a strong support system

One of the primary goals of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship is to create a network of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers. Each cohort helps mentor and support the next cohort.

Theresa and her workshop students made “Wikhikonewey Oposis,” translated “little book sticks” or bookmarks woven out of ash wood and sweetgrass. They have been made by her tribe for nearly 200 years.

Secord says she has benefitted tremendously from previous and current cohorts. “The first cohort of fellows, several of whom are involved in language revitalization, have been really encouraging. I am learning so much from them, sharing their methodology and process. The people in my own cohort have also been so helpful and encouraging.”

Secord said she borrowed and implemented cohorts’ techniques into her online classes. For instance, during the first fellowship convening, she learned a new language method and then created a hands-on kit she shared with her own apprentice and classes.

At the second convening, Secord shared her knowledge of Wabanaki basketmaking with other Luce fellows in a weaving workshop using “total physical response” technique.

The former geologist says she is grateful to First Nations and Henry Luce Foundation for launching this “unique” fellowship. “It is an enormous amount of relief to have a fellowship like this where we are being acknowledged and trusted to do our own work. It is really remarkable.”