|Patricia Erikson with Makah Cultural and Research Center staff|
Growing up in rural Maine, my exposure to Native American peoples was, well, complicated. I was lucky enough to experience one field trip at a very young age to the American Indian exhibits of the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The clouded, scratched glass exhibit cases and hushed, tomb-like nature of the galleries shaped my memory as much as the Native artifacts themselves. I didn't know it at the time, but this prominent museum, in the 1970s, existed as a hybrid between colonial cabinets of curiosity and 19th c./20th c. natural history exhibits. These type of museums reportedly confused children - and why wouldn't they - leaving them with notions that primitive peoples of dioramas were stuffed or dead, just like the moose or elephant in the adjoining exhibit?
cigar store Indians" that towered stoically over us on the porches of trading posts and general stores. Since my father loved to hunt and fish at Moosehead Lake, I can't count the number of times that I edged around one of those frowning, garish sculptures. Closer to home, my favorite B-grade Westerns on late Saturday afternoon TV offered more animated versions of Indians, complete with the proper doses of romance and violance. And where the Westerns left off shaping my perception of Indians, Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls picked up. Weekly meetings and occasional summer outings as a Girl Scout associated Native Americans with outdoor survival skills. And, I shudder to admit that late-night lore of Campfire Girls taught me the cliche that our campground - with the unlikely name of Camp Pesquasawassis - was built on an Indian burial ground. There, huddled together with other girls in canvas tents, we listened breathlessly to nighttime tales of Indian ghosts that kept us from sleeping. In short, my childhood was steeped in Indian stereotypes, Indians of wood and plastic, dead Indians, but, ironically, devoid of visible, living, contemporary Wabanaki people.
None of these - not the cigar store indians, not the ones shot by cowboys on TV, and not the ones that childhood clubs and summer camps emulated or feared - had anything to do with the Wabanaki people who were fellow citizens in my home state, who played critical roles in the history of our region and continue to contribute in important ways to our modern life while preserving tiny fractions of their original homelands; about them, I had grown up in Maine knowing nothing.
-to be continued
[Patricia Erikson is a Peaks Island-based writer, educator, and anthropologists who blogs here and at Peaks Island Press.]