“Wabanaki territories are defined by bodies of water: the Bay of Fundy and the water and islands of the Atlantic on our eastern shores; the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the north; the St. Lawrence River to the west. Within these watery boundaries lies an interconnected web of rivers and streams that define tribal territories within the larger Wabanaki homeland.” — Jennifer Neptune, Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry, 2019
Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry is an exhibition of contemporary art of the First Nations people of what is now Maine and Maritime Canada. The Maliseet, Mi’kmaq (Micmac), Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki are known collectively as the Wabanaki (People of the Dawn). This exhibition is on view at the Colby College Museum of Art through January 12, 2020. The exhibition’s co-curators, Kathleen Mundell and Jennifer Neptune, sat down to discuss it with Diana Tuite, Katz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and internal curatorial advisor for the show, on August 13, 2019. The following exchange has been edited and condensed.
Diana Tuite: Wíwənikan, the Penobscot word for “portage,” was central to the organization of the exhibition. As you have eloquently expressed, it describes certain negotiations during canoe navigation, but also, metaphorically, responses to incursions made by settler colonialist regimes, which continue to this day. Taking the term literally, could you elaborate on the physical and visceral experience? How are choices discussed or made, and how is knowledge of the waterways communicated, logged, or transferred within communities?
Jennifer Neptune: Literally, wíwənikan means to circle and also to lift up, which is what you do when you portage: you pull off the river. There’s a spot on the water that you can’t safely get through, so you plan to go around: you unload your canoe and decide who’s strong enough to carry it. Who can balance that weight on their shoulders? Sometimes one person can. Sometimes it takes two people. The canoe is usually too heavy for me, so I need another person to help. If you’re in a group that’s been traveling together for a while, it’s almost automatic. You don’t need to say much: you just unload and people start picking up things and balancing and carrying what they can.
A lot of canoeing cultures have something called a tumpline, which goes around either your forehead or your shoulders and distributes a heavy load to make it easier to carry. Life is like that too. The struggles and obstacles that we experience in life—you hope you have people there to help you balance the load, distribute the weight.
DT: It sounds like knowledge of the water is internalized both from personal experience and through strong connections to those who came before.
JN: You hope you’re with people who have traveled this way before and know where the portage sites are. Sometimes they’re not easy to find, and you have to be paying attention—looking at horizon lines, listening for waterfalls and rapids—because you don’t want to miss that portage place. Maine, especially on the Penobscot and places where Wabanaki people have lived and traveled for thousands of years, has portage trails that are thousands of years old, worn right into the ground—sometimes into the rocks, even. These are places where you feel that connection to the place, and also to your ancestors because you know your feet are taking the same path, on that same trail, where they carried their baskets, their gear, their canoes. They found the most perfect, efficient way. Some of the carry spots are pretty famous, like Mud Pond Carry, when you portage from the west branch into the Allagash. That place is ancient and well known and has been used forever. The trail is sunk into the ground because so many people have traveled it.
As things change and as places develop and dams happen, it does interfere. Portages are difficult already, without any other obstacles. If you’re traveling in the spring or summer, the black flies and mosquitoes can be pretty unbearable when your hands are full and you can’t defend yourself. Your load is heavy, and it’s usually hot, and sometimes slippery or muddy or rocky. Add to that changing land ownership—not every landowner wants people on their land. There’s only two sides to a river, so you have to go river right or river left, and if someone prohibits access you have to find another way, which can add distance and a whole lot of trouble. The Penobscot has, or had, a lot of dams, and those are major obstacles to portage around.
DT: One important connection between the two exhibitions on view, Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry and Occupy Colby, is the Maya Lin glass marble installation Interrupted River: Penobscot (2019), which shows the river stretching up the walls and onto the double-height ceiling. Of course, the Penobscot is at the heart of the Wabanaki homeland and has long been a source of sustenance and cultural survival, and as you mentioned, Jennifer, the dams have been one force of interruption on its waterways. I recently heard someone describe them as an act of war. Can you say something about the cultural and ecological toll that dams have taken, and, on a brighter note, the river restoration project?
JN: “War” is a perfect description of the dams. They arrived with English settlements, which needed dams to power sawmills to cut logs for their houses, and they just kept creeping farther north and farther inland, blocking the way for the fish. Wabanaki people depend on all kinds of fish for survival. Salmon is a major one. Likewise the shad, the eels, and all the migrating fish—for instance sturgeon. A lot of historical accounts of the Penobscot and the Kennebec describe salmon runs similar to the runs in the West. Those who witnessed them said you could almost walk across the Penobscot River on the backs of the salmon—there were that many running in the 1600s and 1700s. The dams blocked their way and made it very, very difficult for them to get up here, to the point where we couldn’t fish anymore. We couldn’t survive that way.
Historically, the tribes sent all kinds of petitions to Boston. The tribal leaders would hire someone to translate and write these petitions, then take them to Boston to protest the dams and their obstruction of the river and its fish. Fishing rights make it important for people to survive in their traditional manner. We couldn’t be hunter-gatherers without being able to fish, and the English knew that. It was very intentional, what was happening.
That’s why art became important: basketmaking, carving. There had to be other ways to live and survive. Trading baskets with farmers for beans or corn or meat or milk, or for cash to summer people who were starting to come to the coast, enabled our communities to survive and build homes and send their children to school. Our cultural traditions helped us transition in that serious time. The dam in Old Town that’s just below where our reservation starts at Indian Island was fought over for years since it was a major salmon fishing spot for the Penobscot. At least two tribal members were shot while trying to defend the islands where they would stand and spear the salmon. They weren’t going to give up those islands for the building of a dam. It was that important.
A huge thing missing today in our culture is our ability to live and express our fishing culture. Think of all the things connected to it: all the songs, all the prayers. Joe Dana can make a beautiful salmon-fishing spear, but there aren’t enough fish for us to use it. Making the spear is thus an act of hope for the future—that someday we will again stand on those rocks and spear salmon as our ancestors did. And it’s hopeful, given that over the past few years, major dams, for instance the Veazie Dam and the dam at Great Works and Old Town, which were major obstacles for the fish, have been removed. All the hard work on the part of environmental groups and the tribes, the Penobscot Nation, working together with the owners of the dams to reach compromises to allow the fish to pass, has paid off.
One thousand salmon went up the fish ladders or the elevators at the Milford Dam just below here, and sturgeon have been up below the dam here. Last year a seal made it all the way up into Old Town, so that’s open and the fish are getting through, getting up above the dam. They’re saying that maybe in 75 years, which seems like a long time, but it’s one person’s lifetime, there may be enough salmon to be harvested again. The babies being born today on Indian Island might be able to use that salmon spear to eat a fish out of the Penobscot.
DT: You chose to open the exhibition with the canoe and the fish spear on the introductory wall. Both carry that hope within them.
I find myself thinking a lot about how climate has impacted some of the objects and artists represented in the exhibition, but also about indigenous spatialities. I keep returning to the ways that Joseph Polis, the Penobscot guide who accompanied Henry David Thoreau on his river paddle, has been considered by historians. At the conclusion of their journey together, as Old Town Island came into view, Thoreau asked whether Polis was gratified to be home. According to Thoreau’s account, the guide responded with something along the lines of, “It makes no difference to me where I am.” It’s an exchange that has been interpreted in various ways. What do you make of it?
JN: It is interesting. In 2014 Thoreau scholars and guides commemorated that trip by paddling from Moosehead Lake to Indian Island. Some Penobscots came along too. I got in the canoe on the east branch and paddled to Indian Island along that way. That quotation kept coming up. In the end I would say—and a lot of the other Penobscots on that trip would agree—that I feel like I’m always home. It doesn’t matter if it’s Indian Island, where our physical house is, or at Moosehead Lake. We’re at home when we’re down on the coast picking sweetgrass. We’re at home at Mount Katahdin. We’re at home in the Allagash. We’re at home when we’re down in southern Maine.
This concept of home having a border—your yard and your house is your home—is totally foreign to an indigenous perspective. It’s more that we’re always home because we belong to this land; it doesn’t belong to us. We are a part of it, like the salmon and the eagles and the deer and the moose, which makes it all home. All those beings that share it with us are our relatives. It makes us responsible to all those beings, all the trees and the animals and the birds and the fish. It’s a different way of relating to and seeing the land.
DT: Does that different understanding of home extend to what it means to be a Wabanaki artist creating something? Notions of authorship or ownership, or creating a piece of art that is yours?
JN: Yes, because so much of our art is in our culture and traditions and stories. In the two-dimensional work and even the carvings, for instance, if an artist is depicting Glooscap stories, no one owns that story. It belongs to everybody. (Glooscap is a being with supernatural abilities sent by the Creator to look after humans and to teach them.)
With basketmaking as well, nobody can own a weave or say that you invented something. So often, when I think I’m being creative and have come up with something new, I’ll be in the museum storage, and oh my gosh, there’s a basket just like mine. It’s there. We share it. It’s not something you can possess. That’s been a bit of a problem more recently, where people have tried to copyright things they really shouldn’t, like a strawberry basket, because it’s not just their strawberry basket. That’s been made for hundreds of years or longer by all kinds of tribal people. Sometimes traditional values of sharing butt up against artists trying to protect their intellectual property.
DT: Kathleen, I so appreciated your description of basketmaking as a cultural aquifer. I wonder if that’s another analogy that goes a long way.
Kathleen Mundell: It’s a water metaphor again, which is great. I think it’s what Jennifer just said so beautifully—it’s a source of knowledge that doesn’t belong to any one person. It is there for people to draw on and to share, which is so different than the way I think nonnative artists look at work, where there’s such an emphasis on individuality and innovation, on one person creating something out of their own vision. This is a different type of thing, a more collective, older source that people tap into. The show emphasizes individual innovation—a lot of unusual forms, and also some new materials being used—but that innovation is still drawing on older traditions and types of knowledge. Of course everything can’t just stay the same. Things have to change with each generation. But still, it’s striking how younger native artists reference techniques and knowledge that are very old. I think that the baskets in the show are beautiful examples of how innovation and tradition can coexist.
DT: I love the way that you, Jennifer, talk about the marshes—being in the marsh collecting sweetgrass, and feeling an awareness wash over you, the consciousness of plants exercising a kind of remembrance.
JN: It’s something that a lot of people experience when picking sweetgrass—families who have been going to the marshes to collect the grass for generations and generations. Sweetgrass is important for our basketry and also for our spiritual traditions and ceremonies. The plant is considered spiritual medicine. The people who pick it sense a reciprocity: we need the grass, and the grass needs us. Suzanne Greenlaw, in her work with the National Park Service, has proven what we have always said as people who gather it in the traditional way: we’re good for the grass. The grass needs us. When traditional gatherers pick it, the grass grows back stronger and healthier. This relationship, spanning generations, makes the grass more than just the material we use to create a basket.
It’s sad and ironic when old ladies get chased out of their picking spots where they’ve gone since they were little kids because someone buys the land and posts a sign, not understanding that we’re helping that environment and that plant. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me at shows and asked if I’m cutting it with scissors, because if I’m not, I’m doing it wrong. I explain, no, we’ve been picking it by the root for thousands of years. Not hundreds of years, thousands of years. And we have been looking after these spots that are so precious to us. It’s insulting to be told to cut it with scissors.
KM: Questions like, “Where do you get this?” come from a mindset where it’s not about a reciprocal relationship. It’s about “I want this.” And that’s how resources get depleted. Everybody thinks things are just there for their own individual purposes.
DT: I find so striking the balance between beauty and utility in many of the objects in the exhibition. Kathleen, you’ve touched on that in terms of the types of baskets. I found myself thinking about the trope of running in James Francis’s video Indian Time (2019). It’s a repetitive movement without a destination, a metaphor perhaps, and the grace of that motion mimics the pounding of ash for a basket, which is a means to a very specific end.
KM: For many of these artists and their works, though, the idea of a contrast between beauty and utility doesn’t hold. They’re fused together.
DT: So it’s a false binary.
JN: For instance consider a pack basket. It’s beautiful in its own way—its construction, the bellies that fit into the side of the canoe. They’re pretty amazing, functional works of art. But they are functional. You can take them ice fishing and sit on them, or throw them in the back of your pickup truck. And they also have a lot of beauty in them, in their design and construction, the work that went into making them, that history of them fitting into the canoes, or on your back to be carried in a portage. There’s beauty in that knowledge of the design and what it’s for. And they’re a lot of work. To make a basket that big uses a lot of ash. They are a labor of love.
DT: I was reading about a recent book called The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, written by David Treuer, an anthropologist who is Ojibwe. He discusses the threat of so many indigenous languages becoming extinct and he asks, “At what point do we cease being Indians and become simply people descended from Indians?”
JN: It’s a question a lot of tribes and tribal people ask themselves. We are struggling to keep traditions, languages, cultural values, ways of living on the land alive in a time where it’s so difficult to do that. It has been difficult to try to walk in two worlds and keep a balance. I teach basketmaking and beadwork in an afterschool program, and it’s hard to compete against video games and all the things that absorb kids’ attention and are more exciting, maybe, than scraping ash, or sitting and weaving a basket, or beadwork. Beadwork takes a long time. As someone who feels a responsibility to pass these traditions on, it worries me. As long as you find at least one student, you feel pretty good that they’re going to be okay. They’re going to be able to do this without you. But we’re living in a time where it’s harder and harder to do those things.
It’s also related to land use changes, and access problems, and invasive species. The emerald ash borer beetle is threatening the future of basketmaking, which is so sad. We saved basketmaking as a tradition, and now we might not have the materials in forty years. So those are things we struggle with. If we can’t access marshes to pick sweetgrass, that’s a huge problem, not only for basketmakers but also for the maintenance of spiritual practices and ceremonies. Katahdin is a sacred mountain for us, and we still go there to practice ceremonies. We’re lucky to have been accommodated in that. But it depends on individual people having goodwill and extending that courtesy. And then there’s the matter of maintaining traditional values of generosity and sharing in a world that’s getting more and more selfish. So much value is placed on, as you said, building your individual recognition. How do we keep the balance of giving back too?
Every native community is struggling with these issues. And language holds so much in it. There’s so much in those words and descriptions that evokes how you view or relate to land. A lot of our words for places are descriptions, or ways of understanding the world—for instance, navigating on the water. If you’re paddling upriver, most of the geographical names are actually descriptions of how you get to places and how to recognize them. It would be a huge loss if that goes.
“Wabanaki artists create their work within a circle of time, place, and traditional practice that connects them to a larger sphere made up of family and other tribal members, language keepers, historians, teachers, foresters, environmental advocates, and culture bearers. Animating these relationships is an ancestral current that flows through every birchbark canoe, beaded collar, quill box, carving, root club, stone sculpture, print, painting, and ash basket made by these artists.” — Kathleen Mundell, Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry, 2019