INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Charles Shay caught his first glimpse of France over the side of a World War II landing craft during the first wave of the Allied invasion of France on D-Day 65 years ago.
But the Penobscot Indian has a personal connection to the country that stretches back more than 300 years — all the way to Baron Jean-Vincent de St. Castin, his 17th century ancestor.
Last week, Shay returned from an epic trip to France which encompassed a visit to the baron’s ancestral home in Bearn, as well as a stop at the D-Day memorial ceremony in Normandy.
“It was beyond all my expectations,” he said Friday night at a veterans recognition dinner held at the Penobscot Nation Community Building in advance of the first Native American Veterans Day on June 21.
Shay said that although he was not able to shake hands with a mobbed President Obama at the D-Day ceremony in Normandy, he did get a wink of recognition from French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who had met him when Shay was given the French Legion of Honor award in 2007.
“It was very emotional, very powerful for me,” Shay said of the Normandy ceremony. “It brought back many memories that I’ve tried to forget. That I have forgotten.”
After the D-Day tribute, Shay and Penobscot Tribal Historian James Francis headed south to Bearn in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France. There they received a welcome from locals — schoolchildren to dignitaries — that Francis called “extremely gracious.”
“We have had a historic connection with this region of France since the 1600s,” Francis said. “It is encouraging that we are establishing these ties with the Bearn region.”
Some highlights of their visit included Shay’s unveiling of a plaque in memory of the Baron of St. Castin, a meeting with the Parliament of Navarre, and even an unexpected rendezvous with Shay’s distant cousin, another descendant of the baron.
Shay and Francis were invited to the area an hour from the Atlantic Coast in the foothills of the Pyrenees by the Association-Bearn-Abenaki-Nouvelle France. That friendship group hosted them in their three-day stay. Todd Nelson, principal of the Castine Elementary School, who helped arrange the men’s trip, began a Castine-St. Castin exchange program just over a year ago.
The Baron de St. Castin had “profound ties” with the Penobscots, Nelson said. The baron came to what is now Castine, Maine, in the 1660s. He married Matilda, the daughter of Penobscot Chief Madockawando, in 1670, and Charles Shay is one of their descendants.
Nelson said that since Shay spoke to a group of French children who came to Maine this May, it was “only natural” that he would be invited to St. Castin when in France.
“Charles is such a humble, gracious man,” Nelson said. “Before the trip, he talked about the meaning of it. He felt that he was an emissary of the Penobscot Nation. He had a wonderful sense of being on a trip, not just for himself, but for his people.”
The soft-spoken Shay said he was struck by his warm welcome from his newfound distant cousin, a man named Michel Rogier of Paris.
“He heard I was coming to France, and he insisted upon my meeting him,” Shay said.
Rogier’s children invited their friends to meet Shay, who was called the “Indien bearnais” by the French press.
“They’re very proud of their heritage,” Shay said.