Welcome to the People of the First Light blog!

We are launching this blog as a place to share all kinds of information as it relates to our core exhibit, People of the First Light. When a museum exhibit attempts to tell the full story of the history and culture of a people, there is always much more than can fit in the actual exhibit. So, thanks to the virtual universe, we are looking forward to deepening and broadening the stories introduced through the exhibit.

This might include stories of shared history, the landscape of the Wabanaki homeland, the diversity of Wabanaki art forms, or updates on the current issues introduced in the exhibit. It will be a place where guest bloggers will share their perspectives. And we welcome reader questions – what would you like to learn more about?

Faithful to the decolonizing framework that shaped People of the First Light, this blog will emphasize Wabanaki perspectives and will connect readers to Wabanaki sources for further learning.

Learn more about the Abbe Museum

Learn more about People of the First Light



Wabanaki Sweetgrass Harvesting in Acadia National Park

Suzanne Greenlaw, Maliseet, in the field

The Abbe Museum’s Annual Meeting, held on Friday, June 15th, brought together members of the board, Abbe staff, and friends within the greater Abbe community to celebrate the successes of the Museum’s recent Indian Market and to anticipate the exciting growth of such events in upcoming months and years, including the 25th annual Native American Festival on Saturday, July 7th and the Abbe Midsummer on Wednesday, August 1. The Abbe Annual Meeting also featured a special presentation given by Suzanne Greenlaw, member of the Houlton Band of Maliseets and Ph.D candidate in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine, Orono. Suzanne discussed her ongoing research on the role of Native-held traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, in the sustainable harvest of sweetgrass within Acadia National Park.

Access Restrictions Called into Question

Suzanne opened her talk with a moment of truth telling, which is vital to the Abbe’s decolonization efforts.  She described the National Park Service’s historic seizures of Indigenous lands and denial of Indigenous access to those seized lands for decades. Her work, which connects Wabanaki sweetgrass harvesters with Acadia National Park and researchers like herself, is an important example of the process of Native reclamation of colonized lands.  This process is incredibly powerful for Wabanaki people who participate in harvesting.

Native to New England, sweetgrass can be found locally within Acadia National Park in grassy stands that appear to glow in the early morning light. The plant is easily identified by its sweet, hay-like scent, which many describe as similar to vanilla.  Sweetgrass continues to be an important resource for the Wabanaki as a medicinal plant and for its use in basket making.

As is often the case with colonized land, Wabanaki basket makers have been forced to contend with a number of limits on access to sweetgrass and other resources like black ash trees imposed by private landowners and harvesting restrictions instituted within Acadia National Park.  Recently, however, studies like those conducted by Suzanne and her team of botanists in conjunction with Wabanaki harvesters have called into question the necessity of the Park’s strict harvesting regulations, given the sustainability of Native gathering techniques. Suzanne’s research sets a precedent for new models of harvesting access which could have implications throughout the National Park Service.

Methodology and Findings

Picture1Suzanne’s work employs a participatory research methodology, which in the context of sweetgrass harvesting engages with Native harvesters as active participants, recognizes the practical role of findings as agents of change, and allows for methods to evolve throughout the research process. Anticipated outcomes of Suzanne’s research include a greater understanding of the efficacy of TEK as it relates to sweetgrass harvesting as well as the expansion of access to sweetgrass within Park boundaries for Wabanaki harvesters who have cultivated an intimate knowledge of this culturally significant resource for generations.  In 2016, federal regulations against harvesting sweetgrass within Acadia National Park were relaxed for Wabanaki gatherers intending to use sweetgrass in traditional ways. Still, Suzanne hopes, more can and will be done to reconnect Wabanaki harvesters with culturally significant sweetgrass plots in the near future.

Suzanne highlighted the fact that the sustainable harvest of sweetgrass is a priority among Indigenous harvesters.  The common understanding among the harvesters who worked with Suzanne is that “if it doesn’t give itself to you, it’s not sweetgrass.  Don’t take it.” Additional studies have shown that when half of the sweetgrass in an area is harvested, the overall population remains unaffected in subsequent years.  Suzanne’s preliminary findings recapitulated the common understanding among Native gatherers that regular harvesting enhances sweetgrass abundance and allows the species to flourish.  Her study, therefore, provides an important example of the efficacy of Native stewardship, TEK, and the role of each in the maintenance of local biodiversity.

Cultural Significance

Suzanne’s research also points to the importance of practices related to sweetgrass Picture2within Wabanaki culture, especially during difficult times when use of Wabanaki languages was prohibited or discouraged. “While [harvesters] couldn’t speak their language,” Suzanne told the audience, “they could harvest sweetgrass.” Sweetgrass harvesting also provides a meaningful connection to earlier generations.  “Landscape remembers,” Suzanne impressed upon us. “Harvesters felt as if their ancestors were there with them.” The presence of sweetgrass in Koluskap narratives indicates the importance of this cultural keystone species for the Wabanaki, but, in this case, the sharing of such stories cannot entirely replicate the experience of engaging directly with the plant. “Culture is a practice,” Suzanne emphasized. “You can’t practice your culture from a book.”

TEK as Decolonization

Suzanne also discussed a focus on TEK as a tool for decolonization. She found that harvesters tended to defer to botanists though they themselves possessed a body of practical knowledge related to the species unparalleled by researchers. “Nobody ever said this was knowledge,” Suzanne explained. By reinstating TEK as a viable and valued way of understanding the natural world, Suzanne’s work highlights the practice of sustainable sweetgrass harvesting as a vital aspect of Wabanaki culture as well as its immense significance for those interested in the maintenance of local biodiversity or for those who just can’t get enough of the lovely scent of dried sweetgrass braided along the edge of a hand-woven ash basket.  As an agent of change, her work calls for the continued expansion of Indigenous access to Park resources as well as the advancement of collaborative efforts between Acadia National Park and Wabanaki harvesters who have gathered sweetgrass, among other species, on Mount Desert Island for centuries.

To learn more about efforts to ensure the health and continuity of sweetgrass, please visit: http://www.wabanaki.com/sed/PDFs/sweetgrass_08272004.pdf

Suggested reading: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.  Milkweed Editions, 2014.

Credit: Written by Eva Thibeault of Mt Holyoke College

Protecting the Water update

Tuesday February 7, the US Army Corps gave notice of intent to grant the final easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Mni Sose (Missouri River).  They are skipping the EIS ordered in December, and skipping the congressional notification period required by law.  This is a response to President Trump’s Presidential Memorandum directing the Corps to expedite approval of the project.  -Sacred Stone Camp

This is not an update we are happy to be sharing, but it is important nonetheless. Such a short time after hopes were raised by the announcement of a new environmental impact statement and plans for substantive consultation with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, the picture is suddenly grim. But this story is not over! Indigenous stakeholders are not giving up the fight, and they are asking for allies to keep up their work as well.

It is also important to recognize that Indigenous groups across the country and around the world are working to assert their sovereignty and protect the environment from fossil fuels and other forms of development. Protecting the water is a story that connects these efforts, and connects us all to what is happening.

These are just a few examples of the work being done by water protectors here in the Wabanaki homeland:

Hundreds gather outside TD Bank to protest Trump’s pipeline order, Bangor Daily News, January 29, 2017

Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot indigenous rights attorney and activist, asked for prayers for those working to protect water and for healing those actions that would pollute it.

“We have to recognise that unity doesn’t always mean that we get our way. Sometimes unity means that we have to work with others to find a middle ground and we are willing to do that on a lot of issues but this is not one,” she said. “On this issue, there is no middle ground. It’s life or it’s death.”

Women are the Waterbearers of the Universe, by Sherri Mitchell, Penobscot

EPA Issues Water Quality Regulation to Protect the Penobscot River

Continue reading “Protecting the Water update”

Protecting the Water: From Maine to Standing Rock

For our inaugural blog post, we would like to share with readers more about how Wabanaki people are connecting to the work of the water protectors at Standing Rock. If you have spent time in People of the First Light, you will know that water – rivers, lakes, the ocean – are a living part of the Wabanaki universe. Many Wabanaki oral traditions tell of the people’s relationship to the water. The rivers of the homeland loom large in the ways the Wabanaki name and explain their landscape. And many of the threats to Wabanaki sovereignty and lifeways are connected to the water.





At the same time as the movement at Standing Rock is celebrating a significant victory in their battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Wabanaki are both fighting local battles and joining their Native relations in North Dakota.

Credit: Sacred Stone Camp Facebook page, photo by Dallas Goldtooth.

Continue reading “Protecting the Water: From Maine to Standing Rock”

Truth, Healing, and Change: Maine-Wabanaki REACH

Sacred fire at Sipayik, photo courtesy of Maine-Wabanaki REACH

REACH (Reconciliation, Engagement, Advocacy, Change and Healing) began as a collaboration of state and tribal child welfare workers who learned together that children, families, and communities need truth, healing and change.

REACH initiated the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose mandate was to understand the experiences of Wabanaki people with state child welfare. The findings and recommendations of the TRC inform and guide the work of REACH and provide a touchstone for present and future action.

Continue reading “Truth, Healing, and Change: Maine-Wabanaki REACH”

The Penobscot River and the Penobscot Nation

In August of 2012, a statement was issued by the Maine Attorney General’s Office indicating that the Penobscot Nation’s territory did not include any portion of the Penobscot River.  Interestingly, this statement was issued one month after the approval of the Enbridge (Line 9) Tar Sands Pipeline in Canada, and shortly after a meeting between the Maine Governor and Oil and Gas Representatives in Canada. It is suspected that this is connected to the proposed East West Industrial Corridor, which would go from Coburn Gore to Calais, passing through Penobscot Nation Territory and crossing over the Penobscot River. Many believe that these developments may have prompted the State’s action against the Tribe’s territorial and water rights.

The Attorney General’s statement represented a complete departure from previous opinions, which recognized the Tribe’s inherent connection to the Penobscot River and their ongoing sustenance and subsistence fishing rights. The Penobscot Nation viewed the Attorney General’s statement as an attempted territorial taking. Therefore, they filed suit in the U.S. District Court, requesting that the court settle the territorial dispute (Penobscot Nation v. Mills).  The United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Interior joined the case on the side of the Penobscot Nation. The case focused on the Nation’s cultural and traditional connection to the Penobscot River, including their sustenance and subsistence fishing rights. Continue reading “The Penobscot River and the Penobscot Nation”

Indian Mascots in the State of Maine: Skowhegan, the last one standing.

Photo courtesy of Maulian Dana Smith

Over the last few decades of school athletics in our state there have been many “Indian” team mascots that have used derogatory imagery and words.  Indians, Redskins, Braves, Warriors, and others were once commonplace in many communities.  Over time, most have abandoned these racist traditions one by one in favor of new mascots that truly reflect their pride in their school and communities. Today, we are left with one high school that hangs on to their Indian mascot, flying in the face of positive social advancement.

The Skowhegan Area High School persists in racially charged mascot usage with their mascot, “Indians.”  They have consulted with a diverse panel of Wabanaki people from every tribe in Maine and we sent a clear message: if you want to honor us and our ancestors, you will change the mascot.  Instead, they voted by a slim margin to keep the mascot. Continue reading “Indian Mascots in the State of Maine: Skowhegan, the last one standing.”