BAR HARBOR — Imagine if the bones of someone in your bloodline were on display, or stored in a drawer, in a museum.
“You’d feel a little spooked going into that place,” said Chris Newell, executive director and senior partner to the Wabanaki Nations at the Abbe Museum. He’s a citizen of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township and expert in helping schools, museums and other institutions get better at teaching Native American history.
That’s why “generations before mine generally didn’t go into museums,” said Newell. “You’ll see native people in tribal museums but not so much in colonial museums.”
For many white people that language of “colonial” takes some getting used to. From a native perspective, Newell explained, museums in the European tradition are “colonial artifacts.”
Native people made up 100 percent of the population of this place before European colonization, he pointed out. Now they are about 2 percent, and were not U.S. citizens until the 1920s.
“There’s a story to why that happened,” Newell said. “We can be upset or mad or angry, but it happened.” Teaching and learning that story is important, even though it’s unpleasant, because “we are all here now, all human life is sacred and we’ve got to learn these lessons” if we want to avoid repeating them.
When the museum’s board changed the title of its top staff position to include “Senior Partner to Wabanaki Nations,” it signaled an intent to “decolonize,” to upend the tradition of the white American conservation movement that founded museums to “preserve” native culture and artifacts as if the people didn’t have any living descendants.
It’s been 30 years since Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which sought to address the most egregious results of past grave robbing done in the name of conservation.
In 2017, the Abbe Museum received a consultation grant through National NAGPRA and the National Park Service. This grant, completed in September 2019, allowed the museum to hire an assistant to complete an inventory of unassociated funerary objects in the collection as well as to bring the Wabanaki Inter-Tribal Repatriation Committee onsite for two consultation meetings.
As a result of these efforts, the Abbe has now repatriated 937 unassociated funerary objects to the Wabanaki Repatriation Committee, including some from sites in Bar Harbor, Seal Harbor, Northeast Harbor and Swans Island.
These are “not just artifacts to the communities that are involved,” Newell said. “They have a sense of life of their own, therefore we call them ancestors.” They are “living beings and they’re being kept away from their home.”
Some of the sites are named for the family who owned the land at the time the artifacts were dug up, which is quite different from the native understanding of what land is.
“The land itself has the cycle of life built into it, which you can’t own,” Newell said. “In our language, the dirt is actually molecules of our ancestors.” Under the American system, “all of the sudden (the legal landowners) own everything that’s in it. That’s a hell of a stretch.”
Many of the repatriated possessions are archaic period artifacts from “Red Paint People” sites in Maine and the repatriation publicly acknowledges, accepts and supports the multiple lines of evidence for the culturally established lineage between the “Red Paint People” and the Wabanaki, according to a statement from the museum.
Not everyone is happy with this development. Archaeologist Bruce Bourque, who retired in 2016 from a career at Bates College and the Maine State Museum, is the author of well-known books about the Red Paint People. He claims the 4,000-year-old local artifacts “cannot be reasonably traced” to the modern Wabanaki tribes and that the closest descendants of the Red Paint People now live in South America.
But both the museum and the tribes are pleased with the outcome of the process. Newell said Bourque “has been at odds with the way native people have seen our histories” for some time. “It’s not about him,” he said.
The Abbe’s Board of Directors actually considered repatriating the entire museum collection, Newell said, but “the Wabanaki community pushed back on that,” saying the museum is valuable to the tribes and to the state.
The repatriation has accomplished two important goals, he said. First, it “humanizes the people that these objects were stolen from. It shows respect,” he said.
But also, it addresses that “spooking” that native people have long felt in colonial museums, Newell said. “It gets (the funerary objects) out of the physical space of the museum itself, which makes the museum a more welcoming environment” for native people.
“Now with clear access, there’s nothing to block a Wabanaki person from coming in. It becomes almost like a home away from home.”
And that will go a long way toward recruiting a new generation of native museum professionals.
“Maine is celebrating a 200-year anniversary and they’re making a big deal about it as if that’s a long time,” Newell said. “It might seem like a long time because of your frame of reference,” but in the 12,000 years of Indigenous occupation, the 450 years of European presence here has been a brief, “violent disruption of a sustainable way of life. Two hundred years is a snap of the fingers.”