The people of the Dawnland

By | Category: Travel destinations

This is the name given to a confederacy of native Americans living in the US state of Maine.

Thousands of years before the explorers from Europe made their way to Maine, the Wabanaki or people of the Dawnland called this north eastern patch of the USA home.

The confederacy consists of the four federally recognised tribes in Maine: Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet. In addition, the Wabanaki includes several bands of the Abenaki tribe which relocated to nearby areas that, today, we denote as the states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec. There are approximately 8,500 Wabanaki people in Maine today and more than 65,000 Wabanaki across eastern Canada and north-eastern USA.

Unlike many tribes in the eastern United States, the Wabanaki were never removed from their homeland yet Maine was the last state to grant reservation Indians the right to vote and this was as recently as 1954. They have retained their languages and their culture, adapting to changing environments for thousands of years. Rooted in age-old traditions and a respect for the natural world, the Wabanaki continue to honour their culture as they have for centuries, and visitors to Maine have unique opportunities to learn and experience this culture.

from the People of the First Light exhibition. © Abbe Musuem

According to the state tourist board, the place to start is the Abbe Museum, which happens to come under the umbrella of the first and only Smithsonian affiliate in Maine.  Don’t be confused because there are two locations for this musuem. The Bar Harbor location is the one you want to visit first as this houses permanent and temporary exhibits and has the new exhibition, People of the First Light, which sheds light on more than 12,000 years of Wabanaki oral traditions, personal stories, cultural knowledge, language, and historical accounts with objects, photographs, multi-media, and digital interactives.

Their trailside location at Sieur de Monts Spring in Acadia National Park is open from the end of May until mid-October and houses small exhibits in this rather unusual setting of a national park.  It is claimed that Maine’s legacy of exquisite craftsmanship may very likely stem from the Wabanaki Nations’ heritage of weaving baskets from brown ash trees. Still used to make baskets today the brown ash is still used to weave along with sweetgrass gathered from the water’s edge.

With more than 75 Native basketmakers in Maine, their art can be found on display at several museums including the Abbe Museum, the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine at Orono, (This is closed on the weekends during  June, July and August perhaps  because it is the time when university students go away for the holidays but it is inconvenient for tourists,) the Maine State Museum in Augusta, the Penobscot Nation Museum on Indian Island, the Waponahki Museum at Pleasant Point, and the Passamaquoddy Tribal Museum at Indian Township.

native American drummers at a county fair

Drummers at the Common Ground County Fair © Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance

Each year, Wabanaki culture is celebrated at annual events throughout the state. The Native American Festival and Basketmakers Market is held each July in Bar Harbor at the College of the Atlantic and is Maine’s largest gathering of Native American artists and features the celebrated Native American Arts Market. The Common Ground Country Fair in September in Unity, Maine Indian Basketmakers Sale and Demonstration in December at the University of Maine at Orono, and the Maine Native American Summer Market and Demonstration at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village provide opportunities to learn about contemporary Native American arts and their historical roots, not to mention the chance to take a piece of it home.

You may not know his name but Henry David Thoreau was a poet, essayist, naturalist and advocate of civil disobedience under certain circumstances. During his lifetime he made three trips to Maine and the disjointed journals he kept have been brought together as The Maine Woods. During his journey he had guides from the Penobscot and, although he must have been influenced by their customs, not much of that seems to come out in the extract of the journals that I have read. Nonetheless his influence has been profound and you can retrace his journey and that of the Penobscot guides through the Maine wilderness as they did in the 1800s.

the current chief of the Penobscot – Chief Kirk Francis

The Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail is a 200-mile hiking and paddling path through the North Woods over lakes, rivers and streams and through primitive forests. The trail is a unique and majestic way to experience the land that is so vital to the Wabanaki, and gain an appreciation of Maine’s outdoor beauty. It is said that theresourcefulness and knowledge of Thoreau’s Penobscot guides has been passed down through generations and is available to travellers today.

The appeal of visiting locations connected to native Americans has been strong amongst the British and, according to the latest figures, we are still the second large source of visitors. Even with fewer of us travelling to the US due to  higher air costs, a poor sterling dollar rate and any other number of reasons, we remain of significant important to native American tourism. If only Bangor in Maine (which incidentally, is in a county called Penobscot) had a direct air link to the UK, tourism numbers would probably rise even further despite the economic woes.

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