INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Filled with the spirit of their ancestors, Penobscot Indian Nation members and other Wabanaki gathered early one recent morning before the sun rose to embark on a journey that took them down the same paths their forefathers used.
Butch Phillips, 70, a Penobscot elder, led one of many groups that left Indian Island last week for the annual Katahdin Spiritual Run, a 100-mile trek by canoe, bike and foot to Mount Katahdin, a sacred site for the state’s four native tribes.
“Everybody stays at my house and we get up at 4 a.m. and have a ceremonial fire at 5 a.m.,” he said. “During the opening ceremony, everybody is in a circle around the fire, and I started a smudging ceremony.”
This year, “as soon as I started, across the river an eagle started calling,” Phillips said.
Eagles, the sky spirit, have long been a symbol of strength and protection for the Wabanaki, and Phillips believes they visited the ceremony carrying the sprits of Penobscot ancestors.
“As soon as the canoes pushed off, eagles swooped down across the river,” he said.
Their talons were out and they were bumping into one another and appeared to be playing, Phillips said.
The journey, which has been dubbed the Katahdin 100 by participants, took the group up the Penobscot River, which “flows through and around our ancestral homeland,” across overland carries that have been used for hundreds of years, and to the base of their holy mountain, Phillips said.
The idea for the Katahdin Spiritual Run began with Phillips’ nephew, Barry Dana, who in 1981 embarked on his own personal journey to help his tribe reclaim customs that have been lost over the past century.
“It was to revitalize traditions of our ancestors,” Dana said. “We are a great canoeing and a great running people. In the last 100 years or so there has been a decline in that.
“It’s a sacred journey for many people,” he added.
This year, “we ended up running a lot more because of the hurricane,” he said, referring to Tropical Storm Earl, which hit the state on Saturday. “We paddled 35 miles and ran 65.”
Dana’s 17-year-old daughter was part of his road crew and his other daughter paddled in one of two war canoes on days two and three. She had to work the first day, Dana explained.
This year drew 100 or so participants, and all are American Indians or friends who have been invited. They can choose to walk, run, bike or canoe or do a combination during the annual spiritual pilgrimage, and there is no set time that they leave. Each year, a closing ceremony is held on Labor Day.
“We use modern equipment, modern canoes, modern bikes, and we have expensive sneakers, but we still carry eagle feathers,” Phillips said. “Everything we do reminds us of our connection to nature, the river and our ancestors, and this gives us strength.”
Three of the four Wabanaki tribes were represented at this year’s event, and the goal is to have members from all four — the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac tribes — for next year, which is the 30th anniversary.
After years of running and canoeing the Katahdin 100, Phillips is now a member of the support crew for his son, Anthony Phillips, and a group of other paddlers.
Even though the years have worn on his body, “every year when that canoe pushes off, I want to be in it,” the Penobscot elder said.