Indian Island museum highlights Wabanaki history

Penobscot Nation Museum curator James Neptune is a storyteller, historian, flute maker and player, painter, drummer and craftsman. PHOTO COURTESY OF PENOBSCOT NATION MUSEUM

In the beginning, all the humans and animals of Earth could converse with one another. They lived in peace. Each of the animals taught the humans their particular skills such as hunting, fishing, swimming, knowing which berries to eat and so forth.

Every so often, the animals and humans would powwow to discuss the affairs of the Earth. The great creator was pleased.

But when the animals discovered that each individual human could master all the skills they were taught they became jealous and resentful. They decided to hold a secret powwow, excluding the humans.

When the great creator got wind of this secret meeting, he was angry and appeared at the gathering as an eagle.

“You wish for your human brothers not to know what you are saying?” he asked. “So be it!”

When the animals next powwowed with the humans they were horrified to discover that mankind could not understand what they were saying, hearing only growls and caws and twitters.

Eventually, the humans forgot they were brothers with the animals and began to hunt them for food and the animals fled from them in fear. And so it goes to this very day.

James Neptune, curator and caretaker of the Penobscot Nation Museum on Indian Island near Old Town tells this Wabanaki myth, passed down through generations of his Penobscot ancestors. He has even created a little diorama of that fateful powwow for the museum using repurposed action figures.

The museum, housed in the old Indian Agent’s Office on Indian Island, is full of artifacts representing more than 8,000 years of the Wabanaki history. PHOTO COURTESY OF PENOBSCOT NATION MUSEUM

The museum, housed in the old Indian Agent’s Office on Indian Island, is full of artifacts representing more than 8,000 years of the Wabanaki history.

Actually Neptune has a story for every artifact, photograph and artwork on display in the crowded little concrete museum (12 Downs St., Indian Island), unobtrusively situated near the entrance to the reservation, between the main road and the Penobscot River.

As Neptune walks this visitor through the many displays, he leans down to reach underneath a glass case and pulls out a heavy piece of smooth granite shaped like a small football. Thousands of years ago, his ancestors carved this stone for grinding corn. He found the ancient grindstone himself at a construction site in Mattawamkeag.

“When I hold this stone, I can hear the rhythmic sound of dry corn kernels being crushed,” he says. “I can hear the women chattering to one another as they work, the children giggling, a river singing in the background. It is all contained here in this stone.”

Thousands of items and stories are contained in this small building, representing a good 8,000 years of the history and prehistory of the Wabanaki People. They include: flint arrowheads, rough-hewn gouges, intricately carved and decorated root clubs, beaded moccasins, medicine bags and fringed tunics; beaten silver breastplates; ash and sweetgrass baskets; eagle feather headdresses and a century-old birch bark bowl decorated with a leaf pattern that looks as if it could still hold water. The pieces are all crowded into glass cases, pinned to the walls and tucked into the corners of the L-shaped main room. A canoe, made from a single sheet of bark peeled from a birch tree like a banana skin some 200 years ago fills the entire back wall.

On another wall is pinned a copy of an 18th century edict from King George II offering 50 pounds for every male Indian scalp (less for those of slain Indian women and children). Neptune speaks somberly of the white man’s sicknesses and genocide that at one point pared his people down to some 300 survivors. The urge to personally apologize is strong.

Representing the more “enlightened” modern era are hundreds of photographs of Penobscot men and women at work at their crafts of basket making, carving tree roots, building canoes or posing for the cameras in their finest regalia. One case is filled with memorabilia relating to Louis Sockalexis the first Native American to play Major League Baseball — ironically for the now controversially named Cleveland Indians.

Intricately fashioned root clubs are on display. PHOTO COURTESY OF PENOBSCOT NATION MUSEUM

Intricately fashioned root clubs are on display.

A sculpture of the mythic Turtle Sisters carved from pink alabaster with beaten copper shells by Timothy Nicola and a crouching man making fire created by Penobscot sculptor Tim Shay in smoky soapstone eloquently demonstrate that artistic talent and cultural pride is very much alive in the 21st century Penobscot Nation.

But of all these fascinating relics, Neptune himself is perhaps the museum’s most valuable treasure.

If you visit this wonderful little roadside attraction (and you definitely should), be sure to ask the friendly man sporting a leather vest bedazzled with an array of turtle pins and brooches, questions about what you are seeing.

With his impressive historical knowledge, vivid imagination and showman’s delivery he will virtually free each item from its dark corner, its glass case or concrete wall and bring it to life with tales of what it is, what it represents, how it was used and how it found its way there.

And perhaps you too will hear the sound of corn being ground, women gossiping, children giggling and a river running through it.

The Penobscot Nation Museum
Where: 12 Downs St., Indian Island
Hours: Monday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Friday-Saturday by appointment.
Contact: 827-4153, www.penobscotnation.org/museum/Index.htm

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.