Thousands of years before the explorers from the Old World made their way to Maine Native Americans called it home. More importantly, some still call Maine home today.
Known collectively as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland,” they are a confederacy of Nations that today consists of the four federally recognized tribes in Maine: Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet. In addition, the Wabanaki includes several bands of the Abenaki tribe, located primarily in 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 northern New England.
Unlike many tribes in the eastern United States, the Wabanaki were never removed from their homeland. 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 honor their culture as they have for centuries, and visitors to Maine have unique opportunities to learn and experience this culture.
The premier venue for experiencing the Native culture in Maine is the Abbe Museum, the first and only Smithsonian affiliate in the state of Maine. Their spacious downtown Bar Harbor location houses permanent and temporary exhibits with the new core exhibit, People of the First Light, sharing 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 through mid-October and houses small exhibits in a lush and natural setting.
Having long been recognized for outstanding natural beauty and where craftsmanship is an indelible part of its culture, Maine’s legacy of exquisite craftsmanship may very likely stem from the Wabanaki Nations’ heritage of weaving baskets from brown ash trees. The brown ash tree is still used to weave baskets, 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, Hudson Museum at the University of Maine at Orono, Maine State Museum in Augusta, Penobscot Nation Museum on Indian Island, Waponahki Museum at Pleasant Point, and the Passamaquoddy Tribal Museum at Indian Township.
Each year, Wabanaki culture is celebrated at annual events throughout the state. The Native American Festival and Basketmakers Market held each July in Bar Harbor at the College of the Atlantic 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 are wonderful opportunities to learn about contemporary Native American arts and their historical roots, not to mention the chance to take a piece of it home.
For the outdoor enthusiast, retrace the journey of famed poet Henry David Thoreau and his Penobscot guides through the Maine wilderness as they did in the 1800s. 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. The resourcefulness and knowledge of Thoreau’s Penobscot guides has been passed down through generations and is available to travelers today.
To learn more about the Wabanaki people and their time-honored traditions, visit the Maine Office of Tourism website at visitmaine.com.
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