Understanding the Native American Culture Through the Eyes of Archaeology

Matthew Payan, and Adam Weyeneth standing in front of a Wabanaki Canoe at the Abbe museum.

UMPI has always been a hub of great classes and professors full of passion and love for what they do. Curiosity and academic endeavors is what UMPI classes are all about, and because of that students get to experience situations and opportunities that they would never had the ability to do anywhere else. Professor Dave Putnam and his archaeology class on Dec. 1, 2018, got the chance to visit the Abbe Museum at Bar Harbor. The purpose of the trip was to examine archaic and prehistoric artifacts from Maine and also to learn more about the Native American culture and the new direction toward which the Abbe Museum is moving:  the Decolonization process.

The group got to spend a few hours at the archives of the museum where they saw and examined artifacts and very impressive Native American cultural exhibits, from the most famous Wabanaki baskets, to prehistoric tools and flakes. One of the most fascinating things about the Abbe museum is that the staff members understand, respect and act accordingly to the Native traditions. It is not a museum like all the others, it is part of the culture that it is trying to preserve. For example, since in the archives room there were sacred remains of graves and in some cases bones of the ancestors, it was considered a sacred place. The Native culture states that everything that either came from or has on it the red paint characteristic of what they used for their burials, the ancestors lived and are present in these objects, they are part of the objects. Anyone can imagine the importance these sacred objects have for the Wabanaki culture.

In order for us to enter the room, there was a list of things that we needed to follow in order to protect ourselves and show our respect to the ancestors. First, we had to carry with us at all times cedar,  since cedar ensured our protection, but also the protection of the ancestors’ spirits. Second, we had to make sure that we did not drink any kind of alcohol or have any drugs  in our bodies four days prior. Third, women during their menstruation period could not enter, since in the Wabanaki culture that period meant that women were very vulnerable, and it was better for them not to enter to be surely protected. Last, you could not enter the room if you felt angry or sad, because that would affect the spirits. The way in which the museum treated these sacred objects, was something that other museums wouldn’t imagine doing.  It treated these objects and its collections as alive and active spiritually, and not as just some cold rocks and artifacts.

The curator of the museum was also very excited to talk to us about the new course the museum decide to take. She called it the Decolonization process. This means that museums under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, are trying to identify human remains, funeral and other sacred objects and return them to the tribe to which they belong. The reasoning behind this new wave of change in the museum world is part of a moral and ethical responsibility that these museums see within these objects and to the native tribes to which they belong. The Abbe museum has been very excited to take part in this process.  Currently it is under examination of its collections and it will determine which of its objects belong to the category of sacred objects and which ones it will have to return to the tribes.

The question that rises with this new practice in which certain museums are engaging, is on the actual nature of the word “museum.”  We all know museums as places where objects are held and protected at all times. When museums return these objects, to either be reused or in most cases to be buried in the Native sacred places, some scholars have their objections as to how necessary or logical that is. The important thing that we need to see is what these objects mean for the Native tribes.  These objects are their ancestors, their family and they want to respect them in their own personal way. We need to stop thinking in our own way and traditions.  That is why the process is called decolonization, because these museums are moving away from the way in which the world has been introduced to museums, and they are actually honoring and respecting the Native tribes.

Matthew Payan, an archaeology student that took part in this trip, said, “It’s interesting to see their own culture from their own perspective.  I thought it was a great trip and I got a lot of information. Seeing the artifacts from up close and in person gave me a great deal of understanding of both the cultural but also the archaeological aspects. It was totally worth the drive”.

Adam Weyeneth, who also took part in the trip, said, “I think the decolonization process is very good, and repatriating sacred native artifacts and human remains is important for the respect of Native culture.  As a French Acadian, I appreciated some of the connections that I saw between the French Acadians and the Wabanaki Confederacy at the museum exhibits.  The archaeology class is amazing, and I am very glad Professor Putnam organized this trip.”

Classes and professors like these are what makes for an unforgettable college experience, and UMPI has for once more exceeded its expectations.