Maine’s Bicentennial Story Begins 13,000 Years Ago

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The Maine Historical Society felt obligated to warn visitors that a display in a new exhibition about the first people of Maine includes graphic content that might bring an unexpected emotional response.

The display explains that in 1755, Spencer Phips, the lieutenant governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, proclaimed the Penobscot people enemies and rebels, and encouraged “all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing, and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” According to the Phips Bounty Proclamation, the Colonial government of what is now Maine promised bounty hunters 50 pounds for a captive Penobscot male 12 or older, 40 pounds for the scalps of dead Penobscot males 12 and older, 25 pounds for the scalps of women, and 20 pounds for the scalps of children younger than 12. That was serious money – then and now. A couple of adult male scalps would bring bounty hunters enough money to live on for a year, said Maine Historical Society outreach coordinator Tilly Laskey.

She and her colleagues decided to include language warning people of that violent history because “it’s very upsetting, and this is something we don’t want Native people to stumble upon and have a traumatic experience, because it’s a very traumatic history. It may have happened in 1755, but it’s still a really valid history,” she said. “And we need to come to terms with this history. There was an agreement between the forefathers of southern Maine to hunt Indians, to hire mercenaries to hunt Indians.”

The Phips Bounty Proclamation, which amounted to a policy of genocide, Laskey said, is part of “Holding Up the Sky” at Maine Historical, the first major exhibition about Maine’s bicentennial. In this exhibition, the history is told from the Wabanaki perspective. It’s on view through Feb. 1, 2020. “Holding Up the Sky” explores Wabanaki philosophy, lifestyle and governance. The stories are told entirely from the Wabanaki perspective. The historical society deferred to a team of Wabanaki advisers to guide the curatorial process.

Wabanaki is a collective description of the people of the Abenaki, Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. They’ve lived in what we now call Maine for 13,000 years. “Holding Up the Sky” tells the Wabanaki story before the Europeans showed up about 400 years ago and how their lives changed after the initial contact by the Europeans and particularly in the 200 years since Maine became a state in 1820.

Steve Bromage, the historical society’s executive director, said the decision to open the bicentennial programming from the Wabanaki perspective was intentional and conscious. It’s impossible to tell the story of Maine’s statehood and Maine’s role in the development of the nation without also explaining the 13,000 years of Wabanaki presence, stewardship and leadership, he said. ” ‘Holding Up the Sky’ is not independent of the bicentennial, a pre-event, or a side-story. This exhibit is the foundation and kick-off of (our) bicentennial activities. We hope that it will change the way people understand, think about and appreciate Maine, and prepare all to think of the bicentennial of statehood in richer, more complex ways,” he said in an email.

The title of the exhibition comes from the obligation of the Wabanaki to light the way for the rest of Turtle Island, the name the Wabanaki people use to describe North America. The Wabanaki are the first to greet the sun every morning, and are obligated to hold up the sky for the rest of us, Laskey said. The motif of the exhibition of the sun’s ray stretching across the land comes from the design of a basket made by the late David Moses Bridges.

Laskey and her team of advisers tell the stories with documents, photographs and physical objects. The objects range from contemporary gowns and accessories by the Bangor haute fashion design team Decontie & Brown to old documents and maps. Some of the displays combine both. Gina Adams, a Maine College of Art graduate, is showing one from her Broken Treaties Quilts series, in which she hand-stitches the letters of each word of a broken treaty between the U.S. government and an Indian tribe onto an antique quilt. The quilt on display in Portland will include language from a Passamaquoddy treaty.

Maine Historical’s archive includes many of the legal documents that set the course of history for the Wabanaki people, including early deeds that document settlers’ first interactions with the Wabanaki. The deeds interpreted for “Holding Up the Sky” indicate the Wabanaki shared their lands with the European immigrants, welcomed them and tried to accommodate them, Laskey said.

“These documents refute a lot of the narratives we have learned in the past,” Laskey said. “They show the native people felt they had an obligation to be diplomatic with these newcomers. They were willing to share share their space and they were willing to negotiate how they were going to live together.”

Other parts of the exhibition document the trading agreements among the Wabanaki and the settlers, and why violence ensued when those agreements were broken. There are coins from trade dating to the 1600s in Cape Elizabeth and Castine, wampum belts and gorgets. There’s a section on self-governance that emphasizes that the Penobscot Nation is among the oldest operating governments in the world, and a tribute to John Neptune, the last hereditary leader of the Penobscot nation and its first elected leader. His tenure began in Old Town in 1816 and continued to 1858. There’s a reproduction of a letter from George Washington acknowledging his dependence on the Passamoquoddy in defeating the British, and a section on the wartime sacrifices of Wabanaki people in service to the United States.

Theresa Secord, one of the Wabanaki advisers and a nationally recognized basketmaker, got involved because as a Penobscot artist, she said it was important to share the story of the Wabanaki through art and culture. Baksetmaking, she noted, is Maine oldest art form, and the basketmaking tradition is as much about family and cultural continuity as any anything else. “I’m proud of have baskets here woven by my great-grandmother, myself and a photograph of my son and one of his pieces,” she said.

Secord said she and other advisers hope people who visit the exhibition absorb that message. Socially and culturally, the Wabanaki philosophies and lifestyles recognize the interdependence of the earth, animals and humans, and this exhibition expresses those connections despite the loss of land and culture, she said.

In all, there is art work from more than 40 artists, the vast majority of whom are active in their communities. The overarching theme is one of survival and adaptability. The Wabanaki have been here a long time despite attempts at eradication, and they’re still here, still expressing themselves and practicing environmental stewardship and cultural inclusion.

Perhaps it’s time we learn from them, Laskey said.


WHERE: Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: Through Feb. 1, 2020; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday through April 30; beginning May 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
ADMISSION: $8 adults, $7 students and seniors, $6 ages 6 to 17, free 5 and younger
INFO: (207) 774-1822, or