ORONO, Maine — While some anthropologists toil in rough circumstances and in remote places to document the lives of reticent tribes, the lobster fishing industry is an ideal atmosphere for a researcher such as James Acheson.
After all, as the University of Maine professor of anthropology and marine sciences said Thursday, everyone who lives in coastal Maine speaks English. There’s a police officer in every town. The drinking water is potable.
“The lobster industry just doesn’t conjure up the popular stories, like the archaeologist working with the trowel, or the social anthropologist in the pith helmet [working] in the darkest Africa,” Acheson said during a lecture marking the kickoff of the Maine Heritage Project. “Here I am on the dock, you know? But I am a social anthropologist, and I am very interested in describing customs … and standard behavior of groups of people. It’s the ethnography of an industry.”
Acheson’s work documenting Maine culture is the kind of research that fits with UM’s new Maine Heritage Project. His lecture at the Buchanan Alumni House marked the kickoff of the project, which seeks to highlight scholarship and research into Maine heritage being done by faculty and students.
Kristin Sobolik, chair of UMaine’s department of anthropology, said it’s important the university has an understanding of the state’s past and present culture which was the impetus behind the project’s founding.
“I think the foundation of what we should be teaching our students here is Maine heritage,” she said. “Maine heritage deals with our prehistory, the first Native Americans here up to the present, the modern culture that we have here in Maine. There are different arts, different languages, different stories. Maine heritage is who we are.”
The Maine Heritage Project is a collaboration of the departments of art, English, anthropology, history, sociology, modern and classical languages, Franco-American studies and Native American studies.
The project will focus on all the ethnic groups and nationalities which have settled and lived in Maine over the years, including Franco-Americans, Irish-Americans, American Indians, and the population of Somali immigrants in the Lewiston area.
Doing research on those groups is a form of engaged scholarship, Sobolik said.
“We’re not just working in a lab,” she added. “We go out into the communities and bring our research to the people.”
The university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is seeking funding for the project from both large companies and individual donors. Funding will go toward an endowed professor of Maine heritage and faculty positions in Maine heritage, as well as help pay for collaborative projects with communities, faculty and student research projects, and education for schoolchildren.
Other areas the college hopes will be funded include graduate fellowships and assistantships in Maine heritage, library support and publications.
Acheson, an Augusta native who has been a UMaine faculty member for 40 years, also was honored for the 20th anniversary of his book “The Lobster Gangs of Maine,” which is about the lobster industry.
He acknowledged the problems the industry is having as it deals with the low lobster prices and high bait, gear and fuel expenses.
“We’ll see whether they’re able to get out of the mess they’re in — and right now they’re in one,” Acheson said. “But I think they will.”
For information about the Maine Heritage Project, contact Amy Fried, associate dean for research in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, at 581-3583 or firstname.lastname@example.org