A symbolic canoe trip celebrates Maine’s pre-colonial past.
- By: Will Bleakley
Dressed for the occasion in a top hat and tails, Governor Carl E. Milliken arrived by car at the State Street side of Deering Oaks Pond in Portland just before three o’clock. Model T Fords roared by on Park Avenue as the governor approached the water and sat down, stoically, in the middle of the canoe to take a trip three hundred feet to the northeast and more than two hundred and fifty years back in time.
From June 26 to July 5, 1920, Portland played host to the Maine centennial celebration. The city celebrated Maine’s birthday with everything from historical floats and Mardi Gras parties to a somewhat uncomfortable nod to the state’s Native American past. On the seventh day of the ten-day celebration, Horace Nicholas, a basket maker and fisherman from the Passamaquoddy tribe, along with an unknown member of the Penobscot nation, paddled the Maine governor across the duck pond in Deering Oaks Park, past the fountain installed in 1887, and toward a temporary “Indian colony” set up for the centennial.
The blast of a cannon, hundreds of spectators, and dozens of chanting Passamaquoddies welcomed Governor Milliken as he stepped ashore after the not-quite arduous canoe trip. The tribe’s own governor, William Neptune, gifted Milliken a bow and arrow as well as a war club, and then escorted the statesmen towards the faux village. The encampment, meant to present a glimpse of life in pre-colonial Maine, consisted of hundreds of Native Americans showcasing such skills as the stretching and treating of sealskin, basket weaving, and jewelry making.
The location for the village, however, proved to be an ill-advised choice. In 1689, English Major Benjamin Church had orchestrated the bloodiest attack on Native Americans in Maine history on the future site of Deering Oaks Park. As the centennial’s own brochure points out, bullets used during the “Fite at Falmouth” could still be found lodged in the trunks of trees throughout the encampment. Although Portland’s Daily Eastern Argus referred to the site as “appropriate” for its historical connection, and deemed the overall scene “brilliant” and “impressive,” Governor Neptune had trouble cloaking his frustration. He lamented to reporters that the tribe had lost prime fishing and basket-making time, and added bluntly, “Sixty-five years ago we did not have to make baskets for a living. We hunted, but that time is gone. The white people have stripped us from top to bottom.”
As a token of appreciation for making the journey to celebrate Maine’s statehood, Governor Neptune was given a wind-up Victrola record player. It is unlikely this gesture eased Neptune’s frustrations.
Photograph © Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media
- By: Will Bleakley