A brief outline: Maine Indians - the 4 tribes, their culture, their history and their rich arts tradition.
**PHOTOS ABOVE:** Please click on photograph to view entire picture Early drawing - An Indian Campsite At The "Rips" On Cobbossee Stream, Maine C/1750 Photo - Sylvia Stanislaus, Penobscot C/1880-90 Photo from poster - Birchbark etched by Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy C/1900 Mary Sanipass, MicMac and her basket, C/2012
On this website there are 2 of the 4 store categories dedicated to "Maine Indians". I live in Maine, I have been collecting, buying/selling, appraising and observing museum and private collections of items made by Maine Indian artists for more than 30 years. Naturally most of the items I have are from Maine. This article begins to identify the Maine Indian tribes, shares a little of their history and introduces some of the difficulty assigning individuals or items to a tribe rather than a location (the Northeast).
"Wabanaki." literally means "people of the dawn" or "dawnland people". Because the sun's first rays hit their east coast homeland first each morning, the dawn has become part of their identity. At times all five tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy have referred to themselves as "the people of the dawn".
The Wabanaki Confederacy refers to a coalition of the five Algonquian tribes of the eastern seaboard, who banded together in response to Iroquois aggression. The tribes comprising the Wabanaki are the Abenaki, the Maliseet, the MicMac (Mi'kmaq; Canadian spelling), the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot. All but the Abenaki currently reside in Maine. Each tribe retains their own political leadership, lands, linguistic and culture differences, but in the past they collaborated on broader issues such as diplomacy, war, and trade. The confederation officially disbanded in 1862, but the five tribes remain close allies, and the Wabanaki Confederacy lives on in the form of a political alliance between these historically friendly nations.
Native Americans have been living in what is now Maine, Vermont, Quebec and Maritime Canada for over 11,000 years. European contact came earlier than the arrival of Columbus - there is physical and DNA evidence that the Wabanaki were visited by the Celts likely sailing their leather boats from Ireland and the Vikings emanating from "Scandinavia" who had likely stopped/stayed in Greenland. But the impact of these early contacts on Wabanaki culture was minor. Prolonged European influence began when French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited Mt Desert Island off the coast of Maine. European cultural influence was spread rather slowly at first through the fur trade. In the 1600-1700's the fur trade brought silver "ornaments" which were sought after and can be seen worn by Wabanaki in drawings of that era. Trade silver ornaments, brass kettles, weapons, knives, glass beads and loomed cloth were highly sought after and changed the lives of the Wabanaki. With the exchange of goods; furs for European manufactured items, came the exchange of diseases and European diseases such as measles and chicken pox wiped out entire villages. Disease took a heavier toll further south in present day Massachusetts and southern New York, the Wabanaki had sparser settlements, were more nomadic and thus fared better than their counterparts to the south. In Massachusetts in the late 1500's-1600's it is estimated that 90% of the Native population was killed by European diseases. The Wabanakis lost about 70% of their population to these epidemics. The Wabanki sided with the Americans during the American revolution. But they were not rewarded by the Americans for their loyalty and help. Treaties signed after that war eroded their territory and rights.
From 1800-1950 the Wabankis were mostly ignored by the government and not often thought about by the citizens who lived nearby. They had no right to vote, were given sub-standard education, food and medical care. During the later part of this period many Wabanki people left the small reservations where they were born to find employment and hopefully a better life elsewhere.
From 1950-thru the present, the Wabanki have been responsible for forcing change for their betterment. The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy lobbied for and won federal recognition of their tribes. Federally recognized tribes gain some benefits and protection of the federal government. The Wabanki had been pressured to "acculturise" for centuries. They were forced to give up their land, their religion, their traditions and their language. In the 1950's that began to change and now there are active projects to preserve the language and to teach younger tribal members the traditional ways.
Borders were imposed by European settlers artificially dividing these tribes. "Maine" Indian tribes historically resided in what is now Maine, Vermont, and Maritime Canada. The Abenaki, part of the Wabanaki alliance no longer has a recognized presence in Maine, just in Vermont and Southern Quebec. Exchange of language, cultural traditions, ways of making material objects and of decorating them occurred whenever individuals or groups from different tribes met. While there are separate tribal entities, reservations, governments and identities; there is appreciable influence from all other tribes in all these areas. There is also inter-marriage which causes confusion when attempting to assign an artifact to a particular tribe, or an individual. When asked "what tribe are you?" What does one respond when one's mother is Penobscot and one's father is Abenaki? If that individual spends time with both parents' families and learns to make baskets, canoes, or do beadwork from each family - that person's work will show influences from each.
All of this to say - sometimes a older item is impossible to assign to any particular tribal group, and sometimes an individual identifying with one tribe has familial ties to or makes items in the traditions of another.
Historically the Native peoples of Maine made items to help them survive; the first baskets made by a Wabanaki are thought to be fish weirs or traps. Pre-1500 the Wabanaki made spearpoints, fish leisters, bows, arrows, slingshots, animal traps, and used tanned animal hides. They built wigwam homes, canoes and containers of birch bark. Multiple items were made to in daily life. Some of these items were decorated; hides, skins and birch bark were decorated with porcupine quills, birch bark was etched to form designs, stone and shell beads were strung for personal decoration. There was an era of Wabanaki pottery which ended about the time of European contact. There were petroglyphs carved on rock along the ocean shore as well as rocks along river banks. The beautiful designs of the Wabanaki past can be found in their art and craft of today.
In the distant past, some of the Wabanaki people migrated west and became the Ojibwe who to this day canoe east along historic river routes to reunite with the Passamaquoddies. They now come for the "Indian Days" at Si'payik, the Passamaquoddy reservation near Eastport Maine. This meeting formerly took place on the shores of Meddybemps Lake at an ancient Passamaquoddy village now referred to as "N'tolonapemk", Our Relatives' Place. There is a documentary film, "N'tolonapemk", Our Relatives' Place" put out by the Passamquoddy Tribal Historic Preservation Office in 2006 which details this migration and the return of the "relatives" to the Passamquoddy lands. This continued contact between related tribes shows the intertwined history and culture of all Native American peoples and the difficulty in attempting to isolate and assign a tradition, a design, or an individual to one tribe or location.
In future "news" there will be more detailed history and a more detailed description of each of the 4 tribes who have a recognized presence in Maine.