An Interesting Trip to the Penobscot Nation Museum and Indian Island
On July 29th a small group of ladies went to visit the Penobscot Nation Museum on Indian Island. Marilyn Hartman, Ellen McLaughlin, Beatty Watts and Patty Verbeeck were interested in learning more about the Penobscot Indians after the LCOA presentation by Chris Sockalexis, Penobscot Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. We had the services of James Neptune, historian, curator and director of the museum, who explained the many items that are contained there on display. He is also an accomplished artist himself in painting and creating traditional items. He has been with the Museum for 16 years and is a real treasure trove of the tribal history and the items in the museum itself.
Since the items are not all labeled, and many have minimal labels, this guided visit was much more informative than just a solo visit would have been. Mr. Neptune gave us the insight that it was the western Indians who actually created and wore the very complex and long feather headdresses and trailing feather war gear. But, since the Penobscots knew this was interesting to people from what they saw on TV, they made these also, but they are not the authentic simple “circle” feather headdress of the Penobscot culture. He related some of the key points of the history: of losing the ancient rights to a life centered on the woods and the river; the old lumber drives were not helpful to their traditional use of the canoe on the river and fishing; and life shifted its focus.
The language was nearly lost after the tribe was told to stop using it and the children were no longer being taught the language; recently, there has been a renewed effort to teach and save the language. Another unique item produced only by the Penobscots was the creatively carved ceremonial root clubs representing an animal or having intricate carvings, and painted in various colors. Many decorative ones had symbols of the artist or the artist’s family or clan. Before guns and rifles, they were used as weapons in battles, and no other tribe copied this weapon. The Penobscots were one of five tribes comprising the Wabanaki, and they moved seasonally in the winter, heading into the forests to hunt, and in the spring and summer focusing on the river and fishing. They became particularly well known for intricate basket weaving, for various sized baskets for different uses, primarily made from brown ash.
We were shown the various key buildings on the reservation by Chris Sockalexis and James Francis (Director of the Penobscot Cultural & Historic Preservation Dept.) including the Recreation Center, Bingo Hall (which can hold up to 1,800 players at once!), and the Natural Resources facility with laboratories used to test water quality. We visited the boardwalk area along the Penobscot River, which is called the Nick Andrews Shores, and it also has a beautiful pavilion. Many cultural events are held there and in the open field. James Francis, along with Chris, accompanied us to these buildings and guided us along a beautiful trail.
Along the trail we saw several unique and mystical statues carved by Tim Shay. Each statue had a small part where rain water could be captured. Since the river was such an important part of the Penobscot life, these small depressions are a connection back to the river of life that was so important to the Penobscot Nation.