Princess Watahwaso’s Teepee, a longtime Indian Island landmark

Posted May 23, 2014, at 5:51 a.m.
Charles Norman Shay views the murals painted on the interior walls of his teepee on Indian Island. He is depicted as a young boy at lower left.
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
Charles Norman Shay views the murals painted on the interior walls of his teepee on Indian Island. He is depicted as a young boy at lower left. Buy Photo
Charles Shay walks to the Princess Watahwaso's Teepee at his property on Indian Island. The building was built 67 years ago to be a shop that sold Indian articles.
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
Charles Shay walks to the Princess Watahwaso's Teepee at his property on Indian Island. The building was built 67 years ago to be a shop that sold Indian articles. Buy Photo
A 1988 snapshot shows what the teepee looked like after it had fallen into disrepair. Charles Shay spent almost a decade on the renovation project that made it into a &quotfamily museum."
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
A 1988 snapshot shows what the teepee looked like after it had fallen into disrepair. Charles Shay spent almost a decade on the renovation project that made it into a "family museum." Buy Photo
The mural depicts a soaring bald eagle on the ceiling of the first floor of the teepee. Shay's grandfather, Joseph Nicolar, the author of the 1893 book &quotLife and Traditions of the Red Man," is seen at lower left.
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
The mural depicts a soaring bald eagle on the ceiling of the first floor of the teepee. Shay's grandfather, Joseph Nicolar, the author of the 1893 book "Life and Traditions of the Red Man," is seen at lower left. Buy Photo
A replica of a beaded ceremonial collar worn by  dignitaries of the Penobscot Nation is on display in Princess Watahwaso's Teepee on Indian Island. The collar was re-created by Jennifer Neptune after being granted permission to examine the original collar at the Smithsonian Institution.
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
A replica of a beaded ceremonial collar worn by dignitaries of the Penobscot Nation is on display in Princess Watahwaso's Teepee on Indian Island. The collar was re-created by Jennifer Neptune after being granted permission to examine the original collar at the Smithsonian Institution. Buy Photo
Charles Shay holds a &quottalking stick," one of the many articles on display in the teepee. At tribal meetings only the person holding the talking stick was allowed to speak.
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
Charles Shay holds a "talking stick," one of the many articles on display in the teepee. At tribal meetings only the person holding the talking stick was allowed to speak. Buy Photo
A black bear traveled through a Maine scene depicted in the mural inside the teepee.
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
A black bear traveled through a Maine scene depicted in the mural inside the teepee. Buy Photo
A Bangor Daily News clipping on display in the teepee shows performers who took part in a Indian pageant in 1931.
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
A Bangor Daily News clipping on display in the teepee shows performers who took part in a Indian pageant in 1931. Buy Photo
Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, and her husband, Bruce Poolaw, the original proprietors of the teepee, are depicted in the mural. The couple were nationally known theatrical performers.
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, and her husband, Bruce Poolaw, the original proprietors of the teepee, are depicted in the mural. The couple were nationally known theatrical performers. Buy Photo

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — You can’t help but notice the large red and white wooden teepee just after you cross the bridge over the Penobscot River onto Indian Island. It’s been a landmark since 1947. But by 1988, when Charles Norman Shay acquired the property which includes the house he now lives in, the buildings were badly dilapidated.

Back then, Shay and his wife, Lilli, were living in Vienna, Austria. He had recently retired from his job with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The couple had decided they would move to the Penobscot reservation where Charles had spent most of his youth. For several summers they traveled to Maine to make repairs to their house. When their new home was finally made livable, they focused their attention on the 24-foot-wide, 30-foot-tall teepee.

Shay’s aunt Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, and her husband, Bruce Poolaw, a Kiowa Indian from Oklahoma, built the teepee. The Poolaws met while traveling the country as performers, portraying “Indians” singing and dancing at Wild West shows. When the stock market crashed in 1929, they moved to Indian Island.

The Poolaws built the structure to be a novelty shop and called it Princess Watahwaso’s Teepee — Lucy’s stage name. A workshop was later annexed to the teepee and local Penobscot women were hired to weave baskets on site, making it a must-see stop for tourists. (Penobscots never used teepees — that was Bruce Poolaw’s influence from the Great Plains.)

In 1995 Shay envisioned the run-down teepee could be transformed into a family museum. He had it gutted and rebuilt. Then he hired artist Calvin Francis to paint murals depicting Shay’s ancestors along with Maine animals and scenery. The paintings now cover the entire interior wall and ceiling. Shay also commissioned Jennifer Neptune, a University of Maine anthropology student, to re-create a replica of a beaded ceremonial collar from the 1800s. Neptune went to Washington, D.C., to study the original collar, which is in the Smithsonian Institution. Several other Indian articles are also on display.

The entire renovation project took about 10 years to complete.

“It was just something that was in me,” said Shay, 89. “This was my way of expressing my respect and my honor for my family members.”

Shay welcomes visitors. “Just come and knock on my door and I’ll open it up,” he says. But you may have to wait until mid-June. Shay will be traveling to Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. As an army medic, two years after graduating from Old Town High School, he was among the first to land on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

 

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