Interwoven Basket Heritage

In April 2023, quilled birch bark makaks (baskets) made by women of Rice Lake Village (now, Hiawatha First Nation) arrived at the Peterborough Museum & Archives (PMA) for an extended loan visit from the Royal Collection Trust in England, where they have been cared for since they were given to the young Prince of Wales in 1860. The makaks are the focus of an exhibition titled,

“To Honour and Respect: Gifts from the Michi Saagiig Women to the Prince of Wales, 1860”.

This exhibition unpacks the meanings carried by the makaks: the cultural knowledge that went into their making and their presentation, the cross-cultural diplomacy and expectations of Nishnaabe gifting, and the love, respect and hope that went into these gifts.

By 1860, the women of Hiawatha First Nation were known for their skills as quillworkers, having won prizes at the local county and provincial fairs. Early in the summer of 1860 – in anticipation of the Royal visit – the Superintendent of Canada West, Central District, W.R. Bartlett visited most of the bands within his district to rally support for the occasion and to inform each community on what to prepare. It’s likely that Bartlett asked the women at Rice Lake to create quilled birch bark gifts for the Prince of Wales.

In all accounts of the Prince of Wales’ visit, women were absent from any official presentations. They were present as spectators, workers preparing luncheons and as dance partners at the public balls, but they were never at centre stage. Quite often, credit for Indigenous women’s work is unidentified in museum collections representing this period. It is therefore extraordinary to know the names of the women who created the quilled makaks as gifts for the royal visitor. We know this because the baskets were preserved with the names written directly on them, on a piece of paper, or in some instances, quilled onto the birch bark.

“To Honour and Respect: Gifts from the Michi Saagiig Women to the Prince of Wales, 1860” will be on display through mid November 2023 at the Peterborough Museum & Archives.

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