June 22, 2018
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‘A teaching tool from my ancestors’

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — A former chief of the Penobscot Nation was surrounded Monday by all the materials he, his family and members of his tribe needed to construct a domed birch-bark dwelling.

Bent maple and spruce saplings about 1 inch in diameter waited next to a pile of birch bark in strips a yard wide and about 2 feet long until they were needed. Strips of basswood bark and tree roots sat curled like rope until they were called to tie the saplings together to complete the wigwam’s skeleton.

Barry Dana could have been kneeling in a clearing on Indian Island, just as his ancestors did centuries ago, preparing to build a birch-bark wigwam for his family. Instead, Dana, 51, his wife, Lori Dana, 50, and daughter Skiwani, 17, all of Solon were building the structure at the Hudson Museum inside the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine with help from a couple of engineering students.

The birch-bark wigwam was central to Maine Indian life, according to Barry Dana. Bark from the birch trees was the fabric of life in the region, offering materials to make everything from containers to rain gear, canoes and wigwams.

As Dana worked Monday, his image sometimes was reflected in the glass display case that holds other items made of birch bark, including a canoe along with baskets, pouches and the leaves of books.

“To me, the wigwam is a teaching tool from my ancestors,” Dana said earlier. “Building it reinforces our own connections to the past.”

The Hudson Museum wigwam is not going to be as large as those built by his ancestors, Dana said. It is about 8½ feet in diameter and about 7 feet tall. Wigwams could be that small, he said, but also could be the size of a large meeting hall.

“It’s about the size of a tent one adult might take camping,” he said of the one he was building Monday. “Children and adults will be able to step inside it a few at a time.”

The size of the wigwam was dictated not by tradition but by space constraints. Once completed, the wigwam will be displayed between two glass cases in the Maine Indian section of the museum on the second floor of the Collins center. The space is directly across from a window on the landing of the staircase from the lobby.

“As people come up the grand staircase, they will see the wigwam through the glass and it will invite them into the museum,” Hudson Museum Director Gretchen Faulkner said Monday, standing in the spot where the completed wigwam will be displayed permanently. “Once they are here and see the wigwam, they will transition into the exhibit of other items made of birch bark, including the canoe.”

Putting the wigwam in that exact spot, Faulkner said, was part of the redesign of the museum, which was in the planning stages for many years and finally completed nearly two years ago.

Building the wigwam is scheduled to take three days — about half the time Dana said it took to gather the materials from his tree farm in Solon. Children from the Indian Island Boys and Girls Club are expected to help out today, sewing the pieces of birch bark into panels. The panels will be attached to the frame Wednesday, Dana said.

A film crew of new media students shot video Monday of Dana and his family as they worked on the wigwam. They are documenting the construction process, according to Faulkner. The completed video will be added to an existing video kiosk and the museum’s website. Both sites feature films of other Penobscot artisans working and explaining their crafts.

Dana was chief of the Penobscot Nation from 2000 to 2004. He now works as an educational consultant.

The Hudson Museum wigwam is the second one he has built this summer. Last month, he constructed one at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor that is displayed outdoors.

The wigwam project at the Hudson Museum was funded by grants from the Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Humanities Council and the Renee Minsky Fund.

The Hudson Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. It is closed Sundays and holidays.

For more information, call 581-3756.

On the Web: www.umaine.edu/hudsonmuseum.

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