INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — When Arnold Neptune left his home on Indian Island as a young man to serve in the U.S. Air Force, it was a much different place — no running water, no bridge to Old Town, and a culture subjugated by rules that put Native American children into foster homes and banned the native language from being spoken in schools.
But in 1989, he returned to a very different Penobscot Indian Nation community — one he helped support, build and champion for the rest of his life, Penobscot Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell said Wednesday afternoon.
Neptune, 82, died Tuesday on the island, having served the tribe for 23 years as an elder, vice chief, council member, lieutenant governor and more.
“We’ve lost a dear friend and a very strong community person,” Mitchell said. “Someone very committed to his people, and someone hopeful his people would realize their full sovereignty.”
After his discharge from the military, Neptune moved to New York City and later North Miami Beach, Fla., where he spent much of his life. As often happens with members of the tribe who leave the island early in life, according to Mitchell, Neptune decided to return to his ancestral home in 1989.
“If they were born here and raised here, … in their elder years they always want to come home,” Mitchell said
Mitchell said Neptune recognized the changes from when he was a young man on the island. He saw a people proud of their culture and home.
“He saw more activism, he saw more people working to improve the lot of the community, and he saw the culture being practiced and a lot more pride in the young people,” Mitchell said.
Neptune was a spiritual leader and presence at many events in Penobscot County over the years — conducting many traditional opening ceremonies for powwows, festivals and celebrations, according to past Bangor Daily News stories. Neptune was always willing to discuss traditions, customs and sovereignty with nontribal members because he believed misunderstandings played a large part in conflicts and disagreements between the tribe and the state over the years, according to Mitchell.
Mitchell said Neptune was very proud of a program he started to bring tribal ceremonies to Native American inmates at the Maine State Prison, as well as his work toward Wabanaki repatriation.
Neptune will be remembered “very fondly and affectionately” on Indian Island, Mitchell said.
Traditional ceremonies will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Penobscot Nation Community Building, 12 Wabanaki Way, Indian Island.