5 Ways to Recognize Maine’s Wabanaki Heritage During Native American Heritage Month

Books, films, podcasts, and other media to check out in November.

By Will Grunewald and Brian Kevin

The pandemic has nixed many museums and events, but there are still plenty of (socially distanced) resources for learning about Maine’s four Wabanaki tribes — Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy — during National Native American Heritage Month.

Dawnland
Courtesy of Upstander Project

Watch a Documentary

Last year, Dawnland won the News & Documentary Emmy for Outstanding Research for its close study of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission — and the underlying history of child-welfare agents separating Native children from parents. The parts of the film that will most stick with you are the interviews with those who were directly harmed by that history. Now, the doc can be streamed via PBS Passport (available to Maine Public supporters). 

It’s been 25 years since the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission made Wabanaki: A New Dawn, but it remains a poignant short film laced with song, dance, and poetry, featuring tribal members describing the struggle to preserve their cultures amid Western norms and values.

Visit a (Virtual) Exhibition

Advisers from all four tribes helped develop Maine Historical Society’s Holding Up the Sky: Wabanaki People, Culture, History, and Art. The physical display closed last February, but the exhibition now lives on the MHS website, and it’s still an engaging crash course in tribal histories, from arrival in the region 13,000 years ago through first contact with Europeans through political and ecological calamities through present-day self-governance. Artifacts include a 2,700-year-old ceramic pot, 18th-century treaty texts, and contemporary haute couture from Penobscot designers Decontie & Brown.

Listen to a Podcast

Orland-based WERU is beloved on the midcoast and Down East for its community-driven indie programming, from music hours to political talk to variety shows. New to the mix as of this year is the monthly Dawnland Signals, hosted by Esther Anne, of the Passamaquoddy nation, and Maria Girouard, of the Penobscot. Recent episodes have explored the unhealthy impact of colonization on Native foodways, talking circles as a traditional method of conflict resolution and healing, and Wabanaki language revitalization. Although WERU’s range doesn’t cover the whole state, the show streams online and on Apple Podcasts.

Read to Your Kids

Among Maine’s rich lineage of children’s books — Blueberries for SalMiss Rumphius, et al. — three illustrated tales by Wabanaki writers stand out. Thanks to the Animals, by Allen Sockabasin, captures the Passamaquoddy’s seasonal migrations between coast and uplands in the story of a young boy who slips off his family’s sled and is protected by forest animals until his father can find him (Tilbury House, 2005). In Kunu’s Basket, Lee DeCora Francis, of the Penobscot, writes about a boy who learns from his grandfather the art of weaving a pack basket (Tilbury House, 2015). In the most recent addition, The Canoe Maker: David Moses Bridges, Passamaquoddy Birch Bark Artisan, Jean Flahive and Passamaquoddy tribal historic preservation officer Donald Soctomah tell of a boy and his father searching the woods for what they need to build a birch-bark canoe and, in the process, explore the history and legend of canoe making (Maine Authors Publishing, 2019).

Read to Yourself

Dawnland Voices
Courtesy of University of Nebraska Press

In his prose poem “Mainkewin? (Are You Going to Maine?)” the Mi’kmaw poet Lindsay Marshall juxtaposes the pleasant nostalgia of summers working Maine’s blueberry barrens with the grim realities of seasonal work. In one stanza: “Do you remember the taste of your first submarine washed down with a cool Bud from the first store you saw after you crossed the border?” In another: “Do you remember being up half the night treating your badly burned red back and asking yourself, ‘What am I doing here?’” It’s typical of the contrasts in Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), a collection of essays, short stories, and poems by dozens of Wabanaki authors (and others), in which hymns to tradition and place share pages with sharp commentary on history, policy, and injustice. The book spun off an equally eclectic online journal.

An Upriver Passamaquoddy
Courtesy of Tilbury House

“I don’t need to drum on a tom-tom or carry an eagle feather or wear turquoise jewelry or dress up as an Indian in a ribbon shirt or smudge myself in a ceremony or pray ceremonially in public to prove my spirituality,” declares Passamaquoddy tribal leader Allen Sockabasin in his memoir, An Upriver Passamaquoddy (Tilbury House, 2007). Preserving cultural identity, he writes, largely hinges on preserving the Passamaquoddy language, an effort Sockabasin furthered by, among other things, helping create a dictionary and performing country-and-western tunes at Grange halls in the language he grew up speaking. Sockabasin, who died in 2018, writes of his love for the language, his role in the ’70s tribal land-claims movement, and the racist attitudes and policies that shaped his upbringing at Motahkomikuk, or Peter Dana Point at Washington County’s Indian Township. But at the book’s heart are fond recollections of friends and elders, basketmakers and baseball players who taught him to value custom and community.