Wabanaki Guides Opens Feb 7!

During January, staff and volunteers transformed the Abbe Museum’s main gallery into a simulated canoe trip down a Maine river. On Thursday, February 7, the Abbe will open a new exhibit entitled Wabanaki Guides.  This thematic exhibit illustrates how the Wabanakis’ expert knowledge of land and waterways, has influenced the Maine visitor experience throughout history - from European contact in the 1600s up to the present day.  Stories and historic accounts from a variety of individuals, including Henry David Thoreau and Joseph Treat, will illustrate how guiding is still intrinsically linked to the tribes, tourism, economics and environmental sustainability in Maine. 

A Wabanaki guide can offer a unique perspective on Maine’s natural environment, one that reflects centuries of reliance on this place.  Explorers coming over from Europe, cartographers, artists, hunters, and writers depended on Wabanaki people to guide them through the forests and waters of Maine. Wabanaki Guides will highlight stories from a variety of perspectives and points in time.  
Hunting with a tribal guide means having a connection to the land and the species that goes back for thousands of years. That connection is formed through the hunting knowledge that comes with being a tribal member. It is knowledge learned from their parents, uncles, and grandfathers—men in the community that have passed that knowledge down for generations. Knowing the land, the species, when to hunt, where to hunt, hunting techniques—the knowledge of these things has been passed down for 10,000 years. --- Matt Dana, Passamaquoddy guide.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors will be able to imagine themselves embarking on a canoe trip into the Maine woods, the ancestral home of the Wabanaki for 12,000 years. In this place of rugged beauty, and harsh weather, newcomers depended on their guides to teach them how to travel, hunt, and survive in the woods. Museum visitors will be encouraged to consider the wildness and vastness of the Maine woods and the challenges that lie within.

The birchbark canoe is featured as the primary mode of transportation. Prior to the invention of the birchbark canoe, which happened about 3,000 years ago, the Wabanaki likely traveled in wooden dug out canoes which were heavy and difficult to portage. With the invention of the much lighter birchbark canoe, people could travel faster and further. This pre-contact invention demonstrates ingenuity, creativity, and represents a desire to explore one’s resources and create a broader world. The birchbark canoe was a major influence on the Wabanaki way of life and on guiding; canoes of all types still continue to be one of the best ways to travel to remote places in Maine in the warmer months.

During their canoe journey, museum visitors will  be able to stop at “portages” on the river banks  to read about the various things a guide needs to consider when planning a trip, as well as what one might expect to encounter along the way.   Items that might be needed on such a trip may include: watertight birchbark baskets, pack baskets, ash fishing creel, snowshoes, crooked knives, a birchbark moose call, cup, muskrat traps, canoe paddles and root clubs.  Visitors will learn how and why these items were used and needed.   When going into the Maine woods for weeks at a time, it is important to pack key provisions.  In the exhibit there will be lists of ingredients, recipes and historically documented methods for cooking in the woods; flap jacks, biscuits, and beans were staples and coating a flat rock with bacon grease and heating it evenly over an open fire was the recommended method for cooking meat or fish.

“The guiding skills that the Wabanaki teach have been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years,” says Donald Soctomah, Passamaquoddy Tribal Historian and exhibit co-curator.  “People come to Maine because it is still wild.  Maine has millions of acres of undeveloped land and it is one of the few states with a high population of moose.”  Guiding continues to be an economic engine for the Wabanaki, both for individuals and for tribal governments.

When recounting some of the most memorable stories of guiding, Soctomah recalled the Passamaquoddy guide, Joe Mell, who features prominently in the exhibit.  “Joe Mell was the guide for a writer named William Underwood, who came to Maine every summer from New York City.  Mr. Underwood once invited Joe to visit him in the city,” Soctomah said, “and Joe went, but the city scared him. ‘Take me back to the woods,’ is what he said to Mr. Underwood.”

The exhibit is based on research done by co-curators, tribal historians Donald Soctomah, Passamaquoddy, and James Francis, Sr., Penobscot, working with Raney Bench, the Abbe’s Curator of Education. The exhibit will feature a public program series throughout 2013; please check the Abbe’s online calendar for more information about program offerings.