The Penobscot Perspective — Then & Now


“Not until we are lost, in other worlds, not until we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” —Henry David Thoreau

Chapter No. 2

As a young boy, Henry David Thoreau spent countless hours searching for Native American stone tools and other artifacts near his Concord home. It was the beginning of a search that would lead him, decades later, into the wilds of Maine on three separate journeys of discovery. At the top of his to-do list was a desire to confront the reality of the ways in which the Native American culture had been affected, culturally and politically, by European settlement. When Thoreau encountered members of Maine’s Penobscot tribe, many of his assumptions were confirmed and documented in the essays of “The Maine Woods.”

There was, however, a deeper and more transcendent experience that awaited Thoreau in the wilds of Maine and in the company of his Penobscot guides. And through these mind-altering and life-changing experiences, the little boy’s fascination with a Native people and their mysterious culture was rewarded in ways that the man, writer and accidental anthropologist could never have imagined.

Of all the Penobscot tribe members Thoreau met, two would stand out and become the guides not only of his physical travels but of his intellectual and spiritual crossings as well. Their names: Joseph Attean and Joe Polis.

Joseph Attean was the last hereditary Chief of the Penobscot Nation and is considered the first to be elected Chief as well. Attean agreed to guide Thoreau during portions of his second Maine excursion, including the adventures of the now-famous moose hunt. Through his knowledge, skills and character, Joseph Attean became the catalyst for Thoreau’s conversion from a stereotypical view of Native Americans to one that was not only more informed but increasingly enlightened.

The transformation continued when Thoreau engaged Joe Polis as guide for his third and final foray into the Maine wilderness. A Penobscot leader who was an expert in his tribe’s culture and way of life, Joe Polis also represented the tribe in official affairs at the state level and in dealings with the federal government.

The ability of Joe Polis to bridge the gap between the two cultures was instrumental in Thoreau’s deepening appreciation, respect and understanding of the Native American way of life. His experiences with Polis gave Thoreau a new perspective on the ways in which human beings and the natural world are not only deeply connected but eternally bonded.

"Nature must have made a thousand revelations
to them which are still secrets to us.”

—Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau came away from his final visit to Maine with another important realization. It was his understanding of the vital need to preserve the great history and rich culture of Maine’s Native people. As we push away from the shore of the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Maine Woods,” we can all be grateful that Thoreau’s vision was shared by so many others in the years and decades that followed.

Today the Penobscot’s history and traditions, as well as those of Maine’s three other Native American tribes—the Maliseet, Micmac and Passamaquoddy—are alive and vibrant and waiting for your discovery. Known collectively as The Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland,” Maine’s Native people continue to honor their culture, traditions and connection with the natural world.

Every year, the Wabanaki ways come to full bloom once again at special events and festivals throughout the state. A great way to begin your own journey with the Wabanaki is a visit to the Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor and at Sieur de Monts Spring in Acadia National Park. The Abbe is one of the first museums built in the state and the only one dedicated exclusively to the history and heritage of Maine’s Native people. It’s easy to imagine a young Henry David Thoreau marveling at the Abbe’s archeological collections, with stone artifacts dating as far back as 10,000 years.

For more recent manifestations of Wabanaki culture, you’re invited to attend the Maine Native American Festival and Basketmakers Market held each summer in Bar Harbor at the College of the Atlantic. This is Maine’s largest gathering of Native American artists and features the celebrated Native American Arts Market. Exceptional craftwork and authenticity are the hallmarks of this unique opportunity to learn about contemporary Native American arts and their historical roots and to take a piece of it home.

In the Kennebec Valley Region, the perfectly named town of Unity is home to the annual Common Ground Country Fair. Make sure to visit the Native American arts and education area for exquisitely crafted basketry and jewelry, educational talks and traditional music and dances.

Of course, you can get a taste of the ancient ways of the Wabanaki, and a oneness with nature and the Great Spirit just by stepping outside a tent at the first light of dawn in any of Maine’s vast and timeless natural areas. Put a canoe in one of our pristine lakes or rivers, close your eyes for a moment and imagine Joseph Attean or Joe Polis right there behind you with wisdom and stories to share. Or maybe you can even see—in the canoe up ahead—a man with a pencil and a journal and eyes wide open to whatever happens next.

Chapter No. 2