Mary Adams's life—her dual Mohawk and Catholic heritage—is interwoven with her splint ash and sweet grass baskets. During a childhood of poverty in the late 1920s along the banks of the St. Lawrence Riber on the Mohawk Akwesasne Reserve, which straddles the New York/Canadian border, she made baskets to provide for herself and her brother. Later, freed from the economic necessity of having to produce them for a living, she devoted her time to creating innovative, ornate baskets and grew into an artist of international stature. Highly sculpted basketry art forms such as the Wedding Cake Basket, which she made in 1986 for the twenty fifth wedding anniversary of one of her children, and the Pope Basket represent the ulmination of her life's work. (1)
I was honored to interview Adams a few months before her death on May 23, 1999, at age eighty two, at her daughter Trudy Lauzon's home in Fort Covington, New York, near the reserve. We talked about her work, especially the creation and presentation of a basket to John Paul II in 1980 to commemorate the beatification of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be declared "blessed" by the Roman Catholic Church.
Mary Kawennatakie Adams, whose traditional name means a "voice coming toward us," was born January 24, 1917, at Kawehnoke, or Cornwall Island, Ontario. She was a member of the Wolf Clan of the Kahnawake Mohawk Nation ("People of Flint") of the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee). She had no formal education after age sixteen and did not learn English until well into adulthood.
From her mother, Adams learned to make traditional Mohawk splint ash and sweet grass baskets when she was six years old. When she was ten, her mother died, and her father left the reserve to seek employment as an ironworker, a common practice among the Mohawk, who were legendary in producing generations of skillful high steel workers for tall buildings and bridges. Left behind on the reserve to support herself and her older brother, Adams began making baskets.
To begin the process, she followed her mother's example, and instructed her brother to fell the ash trees so that she could prepare the wood splints. Within a few days, Adams had made about a dozen baskets and sent her brother to the local non Native American merchant, Mr. MacKinnon, who traded them for cigarettes. When her brother asked her what she would do with cigarettes, she told him that they would take them to Cornwall, acrosss the north channel of the St. Lawrence, to another merchant to trade them for cash. She and her mother had often visited him, before the family moved south to the Quebec part of the St. Regis community on the Akwesasne Reserve.
Adams told me of her relief when, after presenting the cigarettes to him, he automatically gave her the money, without asking her anything. She did not know English and would have been unable to understand him. She used the cash for food and other necessities. She explained further, "Sometimes, we would [be] sitting all night working on the baskets to get done, so we would get the money to buy our groceries. That is the way we were, I don't kow how many years."
Adams married at age seventeen and continued to sell her baskets to Mr. MacKinnon, for cash now instead of cigarettes. Adams recounted that he "ripped her off" for the little three or four inch sweet grass and splint ash baskets: "That son of a gun, he pays [for the] basket twenty five cents a dozen. The whole reservation, we used to make baskets. Son of a gun, he never pay any more than that, twenty five cents, that kind of basket." With a strong Mohawk accent, Adams continued, "When my mother used to make baskets, she sits on the rocking chair and you all sit around her and she teaches us how to make baskets. Then after she is gone, then I keep on. I never quit, not even a day. Every day I am doing them, and I have got a big family. I raised my family with my bakets. I have got twelve kids."
Adams's tenacity in making baskets full time produced an income that provided stability for her large family in the St. Regis community. (2) She ws also active in her church, the St. Regis Roman Catholic Church, which was founded as a Jesuit Mission in 1752. Continuing the community centered tradition of the Mohawk, Adams shared the original patterns and surface designs in her basketry with her family and the women at Akwesasne, and also traveled widely to give demonstrations of Mohawk basket making.
By the time she reached her early fifties, Adams was finally financially independent. No longer burdened with meeting the demands of wholesale basket merchants, Adams had time to execute baskets that were imaginative and distinctive. Later, she began making the ornate baskets for which she received international acclaim. Her baskets are found in institutions throughout North America, including the Iroquois Indian Museum, New York; the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Ontario; the New York State Governor's Collection of Art, Albany; and the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. In 1997 the Iroquoiss Indian Museum presented her with its "Excellence in Iroquois Arts Award" for the category "The Best of the Best." (3)
Like other parishioners at St. Regis Catholic Church, Adams ws a devotee of Kateri Takawitha, a seventeenth century Kahnawake Mohawk woman, known as "The Lily of the Mohawks." Takakwitha was the daughter of a Christian Algonquin mother and a non Christian Mohawk chief. Her parents and brother died in a smallpox epidemc; she survived, but the disease weakened her health and severly scarred her face. She performed extraordinary penances and was devoted to helping children and the elederly. It is said that because of her great faith her pockmarks disappeared when she died at the age of twenty four. In 1943, the Roman Catholic Church delcared her "venable." Later, the Church declared her blssed, the second of three steps toward canonization.
Wishing to attend the beatification ceremony at the Vatican, Adams and her fellow parishioners raised funds to cover their expenses. Adams wanted to make a commemorative basket in Kateri's honor to present to Pope John Paul II. She saw this act of gift giving as honoring both her Christian and Mohawk roots. The gift symbolized the Christian tradition of presenting a Eucharist offering to the pope who would say mass for the occasion. It also represented the Iroquois ceremony of giving thanks to natural and supernatural beings for their generosity, a kind of gift exchange or thanksgiving. (4)Significantly, Adams drew from her Mohawk heritage and the traditional cosmology of the Northeastern Native American Indian by placing clusters of tiny baskets on four equidistant walls and the lid of the [Pope B]asket. The sweet grass used in the basket's contruction is sacred to many Native Americans, and to the Mohawk people in particular. There is a saying in Akwesasne that the basket making community lives where Teionkwahontasen, or sweet grass, "grows around us or surrounds us." (6) Indeed, I saw sweet grass near Adams's home on a channel of the St. Lawrence.
Adams's lifelong ambition, like that of other Mohawk basket makers, was to continue making baskets until she died. During her life, she produced more than twenty five thousand baskets and developed traditional Mohawk basketry into a highly decorative art form. Almost up until the time of her death in 1999, and even with failing eyesight, she was still able to braid sweet grass, which she then gave to her daughter to incorporate into her baskets. Just as Adams learned the technique of making baskets form her mother, Trudy learned the craft from her. Adams's baskets are woven from her life story, reflecting her experiences as both a Catholic, intimate with liturgical symbolism, and a Kahnawake Mohawk, surrounded by sweet grass growing abundantly in the flowing river marshes of Akwesasne.
1. For more on Adams, see Thomas M. Elliott, Mary Adams: An Exibition of Her Work, October 5 through December 14, 1997 (Howes Cave, N.Y.: Iroquois Indian Museum, 1997), p.3; and Neil B Keating, Mary Adams: An Exhibition of Her Work, October 5 through December 14, 1997 (Howes Cave, N.Y.: Iroquois Indian Museum, 1997), p. 8.
2. Elliott, Mary Adams, p. 3.
3. Elisabeth Tooker, Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture (Tucson: U. of Arizona Press, 1994), p. 422.
4. Tooker noted that dreams were important in the Iroquois tradition; see her The Iroqois Ceremonial of Midwinter (Syracuse: Syracuse U. Press, 19701), p. 33.
6. Carol White, Teionkwahontasen: Sweetgrass Is Around Us, Basketmakers of Akwesasne (Hogansburg, N.Y.: Akwesasne Cultural Centre, 1996).
Olivia Thornburn "Appreciation: Mary Kawennatakie Adams, Mohawk Basket Maker and Artist." American Art journal 15, no. 2 (summer 2001), pp. 90-95.