Richard Silliboy
  Micmac Basketmaker
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Name:              Richard Silliboy

Address:          11 Medicine Wheel Road

                          Littleton, Maine

Phone:              207-694-4459


Products and Services:

-handcrafted brown ash baskets

-member of the Maine Indian Basketmakers


-conducts basket workshops

What Makes Richard Silliboy’s Micmac Basketry Unique?

In a book that focuses on the unique agriculture of Maine, it is important that various historical perspectives of farming be included.  Making baskets was a means of survival for the Micmac people.  They used the baskets to store and transport their food.  When they navigated to a different location, baskets were used to transport their belongings.  The baskets often played an important role in the catching of fish.  Weaving baskets was considered to be a necessary skill.  As European settlers and explorers reached the land inhabited by the Micmac people, baskets often were traded by the Micmacs for various goods.

Baskets made by the Micmacs proved vital to the potato industry in Maine. There was a time in Aroostook County in the first half of the twentieth century and before when the harvesting of potatoes did not occur with mechanization.  Prior to the 1960’s, potatoes were gathered due to the efforts of hand pickers.  Adults and children worked side by side during the harvest.

The potato basket was the essential tool for the individuals gathering the potatoes by hand and the Silliboy family of Littleton was one of the Micmac families who handcrafted the potato baskets.  They were utilitarian baskets that now are often regarded as prized items by many collectors and antique dealers.

Richard Silliboy was the youngest of the eight of the eleven surviving children who were raised in his family.  (Three of his siblings died in infancy). He recalled how he always spoke Micmac to his mother and today he thinks and prays in the Micmac language.  He was the “gofer” at a very early age.  At around five years of age he was assigned the task of carrying the brown ash shavings out of the wash tub. He chuckled as he explained how the baskets were made in the kitchen and that there would be a pile of splints in the bedroom and he would be crawling under the shavings.  He had fond recollections of his grandmother and uncles laughing and telling stories while the baskets were being made.

Richard’s brothers had jobs working for the area farmers during the day.  At night, they would make baskets.  His sister, Rose, (the only girl in the family of eight surviving children), made the bottoms of the baskets and everyone was expected to help out.  His mother, Mary Phillips Silliboy,  did a great deal of the basketmaking in addition to doing all the cooking, laundry, and helping in the woods.  She was a gatherer of medicinal herbs. His older brothers, Peter and Harry, would do a great deal of the pounding of the brown ash at night and Richard would have the job of holding the flashlight so that he could see what they were doing!  It is mind-boggling to think that his mother would only be paid fifty cents for each basket.  Anyone who has ventured to make a brown ash basket soon becomes well aware of how labor intensive the process is.  Richard does not use any nails or adhesives when he is creating his baskets.

No doubt about it, harvesting the brown ash is hard work.  Richard explained that his older brother, Matthew, was very fussy about the trees that he would consider suitable for the baskets.  He would notch a tree and his brothers would cut them.  They had a seven-foot homemade hand sled that could transport 250 pounds. 

Richard Silliboy recounted how his older brother, Joe, was deeply committed to making baskets.  Joe would also rake blueberries, cut trees, and do mill work.  In the 1960’s, there was a shift in the potato industry in Aroostook County to mechanization.  Richard explained that this development took away a lot of employment opportunities for Native people.

Some of the contributions that the Micmac people made to the potato industry in Aroostook County before the days of mechanization, have not received a great deal of coverage.  Farmers would drive to the reservations and pick up twenty to thirty Native workers to help out on the farms when it was time for the harvest.  Richard spoke about how many Micmacs also navigated towards the Cherryfield area to work in the blueberry barrens while others headed to the woods to cut pulp wood. When the hand harvesting of potatoes was at its peak the Micmac people proved significant in helping to boost the local economy as they would spend the money that they earned to purchase goods locally.

Richard has chosen to keep the basketmaking tradition alive.  He operated the Three Feathers Native Baskets and Crafts shop in Houlton for several years.  He keeps busy now making various sizes of the potato basket and selling them from his workshop in Littleton and at a few festivals.  Individuals interested in purchasing one of his baskets should contact him to check out the availability.

Richard also transports his baskets to sell at the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance gathering at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor each July;  at the Shaker Village at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester in August, and to the Common Ground Fair in Unity in September.

Richard often conducts workshops on basketry.

He served as the President of the Maine Indian

Basketmakers’ Alliance for ten years.  He also has made presentations at various conferences about the significance of tribal history and traditions.  Highly respected for his knowledge of brown ash and his concern for the threat of the emerald ash borer, an insect which has decimated brown ash trees in the Midwest, Richard has been invited to attend various conferences.  He participated in a Brown Ash Conference in Wisconsin and demonstrated the art of pounding.  He also participated in an Emerald Ash Borer Conference in Michigan.

Richard was one of three speakers who participated in the Emerald Ash Borer Symposium on June 21, 2013, in Orono. He also was asked to conduct the opening prayer in Micmac at the Symposium that day.

An interest in keeping the Micmac traditions

alive is a vital part of Richard’s life these days.

He regrets that he did not appreciate some of the traditions and oral history of the Micmac culture when he was growing up.  He has shared his knowledge of making baskets with several individuals in hopes that the skills that he has acquired will be passed on to others.  He explained that choosing a straight brown ash tree with a certain diameter is vital in making a good brown ash basket.

For a period of time Richard’s focus deviated

from the Micmac culture and an interest in traditional basketmaking.  He regrets that he did not utilize the skills and celebrate the cultural ways that he had learned early in his life.  As he grew older, the realization of how significant the brown ash tree is to the Aroostook Band of Micmacs became fully understood.  He returned to the art of making baskets. 

For a few years Richard managed the Basket Bank in Presque Isle, a cooperative of Micmac basketmakers that was formed by the Aroostook Band of Micmacs’ Council.  He also participated in various capacities in the 1980’s in helping to see that the Micmacs received federal recognition as a tribe. He has been asked by the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance to take on apprentices to learn brown ash basketmaking.

Richard is the only sibling in his family that is still living. He has carried on the basketmaking tradition that has been such a significant part of the Micmac people.  He has served as a member of the Tribal Council of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs for several different terms.  He has five children.  On occasion, he volunteers at the Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum.

Integral to the Micmac culture is the belief of giving back to the Creator.  There has been a tradition among Micmacs who harvest a natural resource to leave something behind after the harvest, such as tobacco or some other item.  Richard Silliboy continues to harvest brown ash trees and his giving back has taken on an even broader meaning through his willingness to share his knowledge of brown ash basketry with others.

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