by Ardeana Hamlin
of The Weekly Staff
INDIAN ISLAND — The small building a short distance from the end of the bridge that spans the Penobscot from Old Town to Indian Island is filled with artifacts that Penobscot Nation Museum Co-ordinator James Neptune to has gathered from many sources, including from his own family and other members of the Penobscot Nation.
Photographs of bygone days of life on the island take up one one wall. Among them are photos of Penobscot families being ferried to and from home in large wooden bateaux in the days before a bridge was built from island to mainland. Another photo shows the wide swath of sawdust that laid down on the ice in winter, creating a path on which residents could go to and from their island homes. The sawdust helped insulate the ice and kept the ice from deteriorating from use, Neptune said.
“Even though I work here alone,” Neptune said, “the ancestors are here with me. They help guide me.” Neptune, in turn, guides museum visitors into the history of the Penobscot people and their history, and into the museum and its holdings. He is the keeper of the stories of the artifacts the museum contains.
Neptune can tell you about the Mollies — Molly Ockett, Molly Mathilde, Molly Molasses and Molly Spotted Elk — and how in the Penobscot language there is no “R” sound. So those women names — Molly — were pronounced Molly.
Molly Spotted Elk was the stage name of Molly Dellis Nelson, a dancer and actress born on Indian Island in 1903. She performed in New York nightclubs and in the 1920s starred in the silent film, “The Silent Enemy.” A copy of the film in part of the museum’s holdings. In the 1930s, Spotted Elk found her way to Paris where she met and married Jean Archambaud, a French journalist. But World War II loomed and Spotted Elk had to leave France abruptly, crossing the Pyrenees Mountains on foot with her infant daughter in her arms, never to see her husband again. The bag that Spotted Elk carried on her journey to safety is part of an exhibit at the museum that includes a deerskin dress and cowhide dress, moccasins, beaded headband, bracelet and other items worn by Spotted Elk, who returned to Maine and spent the rest of her life on Indian Island.
Other stories in the museum are written in stone and Neptune reads one of those stories in a stone that has been chipped flat on both sides, its curved edge made sharp. Neptune shows how it fits easily into his hand, his thumb finding an indentation that accommodates his thumb. He believes the stone was used for cutting, perhaps to open the belly of a fish in preparation for cooking.
Another stone, which Neptune found at an old factory site along the Penobscot that was being cleaned up, is shaped like a small football, mostly rounded, but flat in one spot. The stone was used for grinding corn or nuts, Neptune explained. He places the stone on the vessel, a large gray rock with a generous indentation in its middle where corn and nuts would be placed for grinding.
The museum also has a collection of root clubs, including an unadorned one of venerable age used by Penobscot hunters and trappers. Eventually, tribal members began carving root clubs with beautiful and graceful designs, in part as a response to tourists in the late 1800s and early 1900s who wanted to purchase the clubs.
One of the root clubs in the collection, Neptune said, was found at a recycling plant, pulled from a conveyor belt that would have consigned the club to burning for fuel. Some of the root clubs in the collection bear a tiny carved triangle, the mark of members of the Francis family.
The museum also has displays of snowshoes and brown ash baskets, and the tools and molds used to make them, a 200-year-old birch bark canoe, birchbark containers, and memorabilia pertaining to Louis Sockalexis, a professional baseball player for the Cleveland Indians in the late 1890s, and Andrew Sockalexis, a track and field athlete who competed in the 1913 summer Olympics, taking second place.
“It’s a place to come to and learn about the indigenous people of Maine,” Neptune said of the museum and the treasures it contains.
Penobscot Nation Museum hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. It is located at 12 Down St. on Indian Island. For information, call 827-4143, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit penobscotnation.org/museum.