Molly Neptune Parker H’15 died on June 12, 2020 in Calais, Maine.
(The following was published by the Maine Sunday Telegram on June 14, 2020)
By Gillian Graham, Staff Writer
Molly Neptune Parker, the matriarch of four generations of Passamaquoddy basket makers who made it her life’s work to teach family members the tradition, died on Friday. She was 81.
Parker was known in Maine and beyond for her fancy baskets, which are distinguished by their fine weaving techniques. In 2012 she was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage fellow, an honor that recognizes folk and traditional artists for their skills and efforts to share them with future generations.
Parker, who lived in Princeton, a Washington County town near Indian Township – was surrounded by her family when she died following a brief stay at Calais Regional Hospital, according to her obituary.
Her life was dedicated to the preservation of Passamaquoddy traditions and values.
Her family wrote in her obituary that Parker received an honorary doctorate from Bowdoin College in 2015 for her work as a traditional artist. She taught basket making across the country. Her baskets can be found around the world, in both private collections and museums.
In addition to her devotion to basket making, Parker was a natural leader who held several positions in tribal government, including becoming the first woman to hold the office of lieutenant governor at Indian Township. “She was a fierce advocate for the Passamaquoddy Tribe at every level,” her family said.
The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance announced Parker’s death in a Facebook post late Friday, describing her as an “amazing” basket maker and role model who was kind, funny and generous.
“She was a fluent speaker of Passamaquoddy, an amazing cook, and all-around incredible person,” the alliance said in the post.
The eldest daughter of Lewey and Irene Dana, Parker was born in Indian Township in 1939 into a family of basketmakers. As a young child she began weaving baskets using wood scraps her mother had discarded, picking up skills from watching her mother, grandmother and aunts make baskets. She married into a family of basket makers and later mentored her grandchildren, including Geo Neptune, who is now a master basket maker.
Parker’s signature basket was an acorn shape, but she often said she enjoyed making any type of basket with ash and sweetgrass. Her family used fine ash for decorative baskets, and sturdier ash for working baskets. Her baskets featured an ash flower on the top, a design used by her mother and grandmother.
Parker was the longest-serving president of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and was a master teacher in the Maine Arts Commission’s traditional arts apprenticeship program. She demonstrated her artistry at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and won many honors at the state and regional levels.
As president of the alliance, Parker “was responsible for helping to save the ash and sweet grass basketry tradition among the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Tribes,” said Theresa Secord, founding director of the alliance. “Stepping in to the leadership role during the most vulnerable time, she was a steadfast teacher, mentor and leader, helping to lower the average age of basket makers from 63 to 40 and increasing numbers from around 55 to 150 during her presidency.”
After being named a National Heritage fellow, Parker said she was most pleased that she could pass along the Indian basket-making tradition to younger generations to ensure that the art form will survive.
“I encourage them to get their education, but I also encourage them to do their art,” she told the Portland Press Herald in 2012. “It makes me feel good to know there will be 10 or 15 more following in my footsteps.”
Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls, first met Parker 25 years ago and was an avid collector of her work.
“Molly was the matriarch of the basket makers and taught so many people how to make baskets,” Lee said in an interview Saturday. “She had a lot of character. She was charming and lovely and friendly. She cared very much that the younger generation carry on the tradition.”
During one visit with Parker at her booth at the Common Ground Country Fair, Lee was looking at some of her baskets when she introduced him to her grandson Geo.
“She pulled (her baskets) back and said, ‘Look at my grandson’s, aren’t they wonderful? You should buy one of these,’” Lee recalled. “It was classic of her to encourage people to buy the next generation of baskets.”
Parker is survived by eight children, 28 grandchildren, and 27 great-grandchildren.