CALAIS, Maine — U.S. Fish and Wildlife expert Bill Kolodnicki picked up a wet, dripping sea cucumber from a sea life touch tank at the Wabanaki Cultural Center, formerly the Downeast Heritage Museum.
“Did you ever kiss a sea cucumber?” he asked a gathering of students from Alexander Elementary School Friday morning. “NOOOO!” was the group’s loud reply.
As Kolodnicki’s lips touched the leathery skin of the creature, it pooped.
The kids were thrilled.
Opening the doors to the museum — which has been closed since 2008 — is the beginning of what Ron Jenkins, Maine Indian Education superintendent, said is the center’s new mission.
Unable to financially keep the museum open on a daily basis, MIE is looking to serve special groups by appointment, while renting out a large function room to other groups. The goal is to increase the center’s revenue flow to allow for seasonal museum openings.
“Today is sort of an experiment,” Jenkins said. “We’ve been planning for some time now to use the museum in an educational fashion.”
Renamed the Wabanaki Cultural Center earlier this month, the facility sits on the St. Croix River, a few feet from the border crossing and New Brunswick. It houses the museum — which, along with the touch tank and exhibits on Maine’s flora and fauna, contains displays of the Wabanaki Tribe’s history and culture — offices, a gift shop and meeting space.
Jenkins explained that since purchasing the center two years ago, MIE has adopted a slow and easy approach. MIE is the school unit for the reservations at Indian Island, Indian Township and Pleasant Point. Jenkins said although MIE owns the center, no education funds are used for its operation or upkeep. This is why the center must become self-sufficient, he said.
“Our slow approach to growth blends perfectly with a feasibility study presented earlier this month to the MIE joint board,” Jenkins said.
The recently submitted feasibility study, conducted by Coastal Enterprises, Inc, stated that the best use for the center would be as a Native American-owned and operated cultural center hosting temporary exhibits and offering workshops, classes, demonstrations, films, and training.
After being open for just four years, the $6 million museum, which was built with city taxpayer funds, filed for bankruptcy in 2008. At the time, USDA Rural Development held a $600,000 mortgage and the Department of Commerce held a $1 million second mortgage.
MIE, which had been the center’s largest tenant for four years, purchased the center and retained the existing leases with outside agencies, but the museum remained closed. Jenkins said the next step is to become financially viable to allow for the hiring of a full-time museum director.
“We obviously have a gem here,” Jenkins said. “And we want to be able to open it to the public. But for that, we need to increase our funding sources.”
Jenkins said he hopes to reopen the gift shop for the summer and, eventually, open the full museum on a more permanent basis.
To pay the everyday bills, the Wabanaki Center leases space to the Maine Tourism Center, the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce and Child Development Services.
Jenkins said the center’s meeting room also is now being rented for a variety of uses. He said professional development gatherings and even a wedding have been held at the center.
“We are forced to go slow because of financial considerations,” Jenkins said, “but the reality is that may help insure our success. We don’t want to do too much too soon. This slow approach really makes sense for us.”
Friday’s visitors — the first MIE has hosted — included fourth through eighth graders from Alexander and a group of local day care children.
“There are several other museums with Native American exhibits,” he said, “but this will be the only one that is fully Native American controlled.”
To continue its focus on Native American arts and culture, the center will be hosting the creation of a 25-foot sailing canoe created by the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the process will be documented in both English and Passamaquoddy. The center is also seeking a grant to host a series of lectures on the use of native herbs for medicinal purposes.
Anyone wishing to set up a group visit to the center, make a donation or rent the function room may call Wanda at 207-454-2126.