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Jeffrey B. Roth

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Posted: June 27, 2018

Understand Maine through its native people

Written by: Jeffrey B. Roth

A four-day paddle on the Penobscot ending with a tour of the Penobscot Museum is operated by the Mahoosuc Guides Service. Photo courtesy of the Penobscot Nation

Damariscotta, Katahdin, Chemquasabamticook, Madawaska, Aroostook, Passadumkeag, Umcolcus – they’re names Mainers effortlessly enunciate, but that often manacle the tongues of visitors.

With a bit of practice, these terms may be phonetically tamed, but their meanings – and significance in Maine history – remain a mystery to many. But museums throughout the state and events throughout the summer provide avenues for learning more about the indigenous people and the impact their culture has made on the Maine of today.

Kennebunk and Ogunquit are among Maine’s top tourist destinations, but few visitors probably know that Kennebunk, for example, is Abenaki for “long sand bar,” and Ogunquit, Micmac for “lagoons within dunes.” Upstate, Damariscotta’s name is Abenaki for “many alewives,” while Katahdin is Abenaki for “the principal mountain.”

If by chance, lucky visitors spot Maine’s most recognizable land mammal, the moose, few would question the origin of the strange word, but Penobscot “moz,” pronounced mooz, and Passamaquoddy “mus,” pronounced moos, are both derivatives of the Algonquian word for “twig eater.”

Basketmakers at work in the Hudson Museum in Orono. Photo courtesy of Hudson Museum

Maine’s Native Americans are part of the Algonquian-speaking native inhabitants of the Northeast. Maine tribes include the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot Nation, which comprise the Wabanaki Confederacy.

“People have been living here for at least 11,000 years,” said Bonnie Newsom, University of Maine assistant professor of anthropology and an indigenous archaeologist, who is a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation.

“Folks have been living along the Penobscot River for at least 9,000 years. We don’t know a lot about those early years, in part because when you get back that far, things tend to deteriorate. You get more information from sites dating just prior to (European) contact.”

Darren Ranco, coordinator of Native American Research and associate professor of anthropology at UMaine, said one of the reasons the traditions and languages of Maine tribes have survived is partially due to geography. Unlike native populations in places like Massachusetts, where interactions between colonists and Native Americans became violent, tribes in border states such as Maine tended to have fewer violent interactions with European settlers, and reservations were established much earlier in Maine than in other parts of the country.

Ranco added that the Hudson Museum, located on the Orono campus, is one place visitors can learn about Maine’s indigenous inhabitants. The museum has an excellent collection of artifacts dating back thousands of years, in addition to items spanning post-contact to the present.

Gretchen Faulkner, director of the Hudson Museum in the Collins Center for the Arts, said the permanent exhibits include the Maine Indian Gallery and the World Cultures Gallery. The museum maintains a collection of 8,865 “ethnographic and archaeological objects from around the globe.”

Abbe Levin, the cultural tourism consultant for the state’s tourism office, said: “The thing we do the most is to steer people to the institutions: Abbe Museum (Bar Harbor), the only Smithsonian affiliate in Maine; the Hudson; the Maine State Museum (Augusta); and, the Penobscot Nation Museum, on Indian Island.”

Canoes and clothing at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. Photo courtesy of the Abbe Museum

Abbe Museum president and CEO Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko said the organization dates back to 1928 and is a great starting point for people interested in Native American culture. With two locations, Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island, the museum features an impressive collection of historic and contemporary native crafts.

“With more than 12,000 years of history, they have never been forced away from their homelands; they are still here,” Catlin-Legutko said. “Their language is attached to the land, and we tell the full story here.”

The exhibit “Emergence: Root Clubs of the Penobscot Nation,” which runs through December, features more than 70 Wabanaki root clubs carved from the root balls of birch and poplar trees, a tradition sustained by Wabanaki artists for hundreds of years, Catlin-Legutko said. Another exhibit, “Four Directions of Wabanaki Basketry,” brings together baskets from each of the Wabanaki tribes.

For a more hands-on experience, the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail Festival (July 18-21) in Greenville commemorates the history of the Wabanaki people and poet, philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s three trips into the Maine woods. There will be numerous talks and workshops, as well as music and a barbecue.

Mahoosuc Guide Service in Bethel offers a Penobscot-guided canoe trip on the Penobscot River that goes to Sugar Island. On the last day of the trip, the canoes travel to Indian Island, where participants are taken on a tour by James Francis, director of Cultural History and Preservation of the Penobscot Nation. The tour ends at the Penobscot Nation Museum.

“The public event we do is called the Wabanaki Social Gathering, Aug. 5, in conjunction with the birchbark-canoe regatta,” Francis said. “Over the past decade or so, the Wabanaki community has had a resurgence in the art and craft of building birchbark canoes again. We want to bring together a dozen or more of these canoes and have them in the water and invite people in the community to help celebrate the revitalization of this art form.”

Francis said the birchbark canoe “was the most important cultural technology we invented, and its shape has not changed, even today. The canoe is popular worldwide and is not just our tradition, but an American outdoor tradition as well.”

In addition to baskets, the Penobscot museum has three birchbark canoes, including one that Thoreau may have used during his 1857 Maine woods expedition, led by Penobscot guide Joe Polis, Francis said. The canoe fits the exact dimensions Thoreau described after Polis tried to sell it to him, but Thoreau turned down the offer and the canoe remained in the Penobscot community.

Historian and preservation officer for the Passamaquoddy, Donald Soctomah, said the tribe has two community museums, one at Pleasant Point and one in Indian Township. There is also a Wabanaki Cultural Museum in Calais.

“Each one of the museums focuses on a different aspect of history and culture,” Soctomah said. “Pleasant Point Museum is located close to Eastport on the coast, so a lot of the information and displays focus on coastal activities. It features mannequins in native regalia representing different time periods, an old birchbark canoe, artifacts, a lot of photographs and historical documents.”

The Calais Wabanaki museum presents Passamaquoddy culture and features wall displays of petroglyphs with explanations of the meanings of the design; another section is devoted to a collection of Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder recording tubes, the first field recordings using the nascent technology in the world. The 31 cylinders were used by Walter Fewkes in 1890 to record the language, songs and stories of the Passamaquoddy.

The Indian Township museum exhibit includes artifacts – arrowheads, spearheads, fishing equipment – dating back 10,000 to 12,000 years, Soctomah said. The museum has one of the largest collections of petroglyph molds, dated to 3,500 years ago. Another display features the 1900s regalia of Chief Tomah Joseph, a collection of baskets made over the past 100 years; and a collection of photographs of chiefs over the past 100 years, in addition to other photos, documents, books and archives.

Pleasant Point Community Days are scheduled for Aug. 11-12; Indian Township Community Days are scheduled for July 21-22. Two days before the Pleasant Point event, there is a 60-mile canoe trip from Indian Township to Pleasant Point, Soctomah said.

For those visitors heading west, there is a little-known, off-the-beaten-path private museum located in New Portland: Nowetah’s Indian Store and Museum. Most of its visitors stumble across the store thanks to a roadside sign. Nowetah Cyr, an Abenaki-Paugussett, started the store in Connecticut in the mid-1960s. In 1969, she moved to Maine. On Feb. 1, she will celebrate 50 years of collecting Native American artifacts.

“We have over 600 Maine Indian baskets, some very early ones from the 1700s-1800s,” said Cyr. “People are just awed when they walk into the basket room. Every basket is well-documented, and labeled with the year it was made and the tribe it represents. We have visitors come from all over the country.”

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