Long before there was a University of Maine, a pair of towns called Orono and Old Town, or any Europeans to be found anywhere in what is now Maine, there was wαsαhpskek mə̀nəhan — a 5-mile-long island in the Penobscot River that’s part of the ancestral homeland of the Penobscot people. In English, that’s Slippery Rock Island, so named because canoe landings on the island can be difficult due to the slippery rocks.
Today, wαsαhpskek mə̀nəhan is known as Marsh Island, home to the University of Maine and part of the towns of Orono and Old Town. In 1783, John Marsh, one of the area’s original white settlers, purchased the island from the local Native people for, supposedly, “30 bushels of good corn.”
Some 236 years after white settlers first laid claim to the land on which UMaine stands and renamed every Wabanaki place with an English word, many of the English language signs at UMaine — including those labeling the Memorial Union, the Collins Center for the Arts and Fogler Library — have been replaced with signs that bear those names in both English and Penobscot.
Last fall, the first sign was installed at Corbett Hall, home to UMaine’s Wabanaki Center. In the Penobscot, the name is interpreted as wαpánahkik — “in the dawnland,” referencing the term the Wabanaki people use for their homeland.
Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.
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