Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, October 5, 2017
Bill Haviland presents local Native American history to rapt audience
Deer Isle historian Bill Haviland presents a history of local indigenous people at Brooksville Town Hall.
by Elke Dorr
Some 11,000 years ago, the first Paleo-Indians migrated into what we know as Canada’s Maritime Provinces and Maine. Emphasizing their long presence in this part of the world, Bill Haviland, Deer Isle historian and anthropologist, proceeded to describe the history of local indigenous peoples to the large audience recently gathered at Brooksville Town Hall.
Haviland, professor emeritus at University of Vermont, and prolific writer, has for many years conducted extensive research into local native American tribes. Beginning with the tribes’ migration to the area, to their complicated interactions with Europeans as well as their ongoing presence and contributions to local life and culture, Haviland’s presentation included a slideshow of maps, paintings and illustrations, as well as an array of artifacts.
As he described their various histories their names rolled off his tongue with the easy familiarity of long and probing study: Etchemins, Wabanakis (desendants of the Etchemins), Maliseets, Abenakis, Penobscots. Referring to places such as Bagaduce and Eggemoggin (a corruption of the original Indian name meaning “place of the fish weirs”), Haviland remarked that it is “a wonder that [such] place names are still known,” testament to at least one aspect of local native peoples’ experience in contrast to that of others across the country. “Maine was unusual in North America’s history with indigenous peoples,” he said, in that native populations weren’t forcibly moved as were so many others. Maine tribes “stayed put in their homeland.”
In describing the extensive trade practices of the tribes, both with one another as well as with the French and the English, Haviland painted a lively picture of the “Canoe Indians.” Expert seafarers in their light-weight canoes, they plied the vast waterways that served as “the interstate highways of the time.” The mouth of the Bagaduce, for example, with its rising and falling tides, was long the “hub of the water routes … a traditional trading place,” he noted. Another significant trade location, he pointed out, was Naskeag Point, where natives traded with others from as far away as the Mid-Atlantic.
Relationships with the Europeans varied considerably, he noted. With the French, the Indians enjoyed much more cordial dealings than with the English. While “the French encouraged” relationships with the tribes, “the English frowned on alliances between themselves and native people.” First contact between the tribes and the French occurred amicably in 1604, near what is now Bangor, with the arrival of Samuel de Champlain. Contact with the English, however, was far less cordial and, in fact, would lead to devastating consequence for the Indians following the arrival of John Smith in 1614. Apart from oppression and violent encounters was the catastrophic occurrence of what the tribes referred to as “the Great Dying,” an epidemic of European origin of such extreme proportion that approximately 90 percent of the local native population perished.
Although Maine’s native peoples weren’t relocated by the government, children were often sent to boarding schools such as the infamous Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, where Penobscot Lawrence Mitchell was sent. The schools were intended to assimilate Indian children to European culture, but they did so through extremely harsh methods including prohibiting use of their native languages and spiritual practices, cutting their traditionally long hair and, in general, imposing severe punishments for transgressions. Following his education at Carlisle, Mitchell joined the U.S. Army. After living in South Dakota for a time, he returned to Indian Island in 1927, joining his family in making handcrafted items including baskets and “rustic furniture to sell to the Cottagers.” Mitchell’s family, remarked Haviland, sold their wares in Deer Isle—known to the tribes as “At the Place of Lobsters.” The family continued to come each summer to Dunham’s Point until the 1950s.
Penobscot elder Charles Shay was the subject of another story. Shay was descended from Baron de Saint-Castin (for whom Castine is named) and is a highly decorated WWII veteran. He was among the 500 Native Americans who were part of the D-Day liberation at Normandy in 1944. When he came home following the war, he tried to vote and was turned away. Not until 1953 were Indians given the right to vote in national elections, but it took until 1967 before Indians in Maine were granted the right to vote in local and state elections. For his bravery and valor in both WWII and the Korean War, Shay was awarded the silver and bronze stars, and in 2007 was presented the French Legion D’honneur. In addition, the Charles Shay Memorial Park was created in his honor on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, where he landed as a 19-year old medic on D-Day.
Haviland reminded his audience of the remarkable resilience Maine’s native peoples have shown and their efforts to maintain tribal traditions despite living “in a world controlled by others,” and all too often being relegated to the margins of society.