Bill Haviland gives insight into Maine Native American history

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 25, 2018 and The Weekly Packet, January 25, 2018 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, has spent much time studying and explaining the relationships between the Native Americans and early Europeans. 

Haviland, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, and a 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.

As he describes their various histories their names rolled off his tongue with the easy familiarity of long and probing study: Etchemins, Wabanakis (descendants 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 said 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.

PHOTO: At the Place of the Lobsters and Crabs: Indian People and Deer Isle, Maine, 1605–2005 by William A. Haviland, who has written extensively on Native Americans. Published by Polar Bear & Company in cooperation with the Deer Isle- Stonington Historical Society 120pp, 5.5"x8.5", 30 b&w illustrations Quality Paperback, ISBN 978-1-882190-97-3 US $12.95. Avalible worldwide

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.

PHOTO: Project Omaha Beach by Charles Norman Shay recounts his life. Shay was a medic who saved many lives that D-day in 1944 when 3,000 Allied troops died and some 9,000 were injured or went missing. Shay repeatedly plunged into the treacherous sea and carried critically-wounded men to safety. His book honors all who served but it was hard for him to recall the past while writing it. Published by Polar Bear & Company

Haviland also spoke 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.