Exhibit on local Native Americans opens at museum
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — As some states and communities have slowly begun to acknowledge their often purposeful erasure of Native Americans from the dominant narrative, the voices, cultures and histories of the Abenaki and Wabanaki peoples were recently given a rightful home in the oldest “neighborhood” of New Hampshire settled by Europeans.
“People of the Dawnland,” an exhibit at the Jones House Family Discover Center in the 1600s Puddle Dock neighborhood, opens this month. The neighborhood, now known far and wide as Strawbery Banke Museum, did in fact have remnants of indigenous people, such as pottery, projectile points and tent holes, discovered by archaeologists, but the museum has largely focused its efforts on the colonial aspects of the early settlement.
But the narrative is changing, after a long-range interpretive planning effort targeted elevating diverse voices in their collections as a goal for the museum. Alix Martin, museum archaeologist and non-Native professor of Native Studies in the anthropology department at the University of New Hampshire, said the American Alliance of Museums issued a “trend watch” for the year, which included a large section about “decolonizing museums,” by not focusing solely on colonial and Anglo-American narratives.
The archaeological discoveries showed indigenous people have been in the region for more than 12,000 years.
The rehabilitation of two Strawbery Banke houses over the last year resulted in some exhibit movement, and a room in the Jones House arose as a proper opportunity to debut the Native American-focused display, which is interactive, incorporating hands-on activities, such as games, art and storytelling.
The exhibit was organized by the museum’s education department in collaboration with Martin and Anne Jennison, a Strawbery Banke interpreter of European and Abenaki ancestry, known for her traditional Northeast Native American storytelling. Input for the exhibit was provided by the state Commission on Native American Affairs, tribes, the Berwick, Maine, Historical Society, and the Indigenous New Hampshire Collaborative Collective at UNH.
Jennison said she asked her parents for permission to publicly identify as a Native person before she began her storytelling endeavors 30 years ago. “If you could identify as white or black, it was better than identifying as Native,” Jennison said. “It was safer. It’s only very recent in the history of New England that it’s OK. There is a lot of scholarship about how the New England Native peoples have been hiding in plain sight.”
Detailed in a documentary last year titled “Dawnland,” in Maine, government agents systematically forced Native American children from their homes and placed them with white families. As recently as the 1970s, one in four Native children nationwide were living in non-Native foster care, adoptive homes or at boarding schools. The separation caused emotional and physical harm as adults attempted to erase their cultural identity.
Jennison is also a Native craftswoman, and the exhibit features her birch bark creations, corn husk dolls and bead work. A library for browsing showcases Native literature of all kinds. Various archaeological artifacts are on display, and interpretative wall panels detail Native history on the Seacoast and across New Hampshire. There is also a formal land acknowledgement, signifying Abenaki land underfoot.
The exhibit features donations from personal collections, and an Abenaki artist allowed her work to be shown on the walls. Native foodways are depicted by Indian corn, beans and squash. Jennison said the presentation draws from “everyone’s bag of tools.”
“People were curious, ‘Why is your history starting only with the 1600s?’” Martin said. “I think this is a great opportunity to go way farther back and start with the very first people who lived here. And then connect these people and their connection to this landscape and their traditions to today. Native people were and are an important part of the Portsmouth and Puddle Dock community.”
Jennison grew up in Portsmouth, and had a goal that after she retired from teaching, she would approach Strawbery Banke about expanding its focus on Native American history. Jennison’s master’s work at UNH focused largely on the 1713 Treaty of Portsmouth, which represented an important agreement between the “Eastern Indians” and the English Royal government. The treaty shows pictograph signatures of tribal delegates attending the peace conference, including the Abenaki sachem, Bomoseen.
When English colonists began to arrive in the Northeast in the 1600s, bringing foreign diseases, animals and plants onto Abenaki homeland, violent conflicts across the region resulted in the deaths of Native people, and the removal of others from their homeland. But many Abenaki people remained and adapted, showing strength and resilience.
Martin said she is confident the exhibit reflects what Native Americans want to communicate, thanks to the widespread input they received in curating it. She also noted the Native population in New Hampshire is actually growing, because of new identification options offered by the Census Bureau.
“Allowing people to identify themselves as Native has brought so many more people in touch with their heritage,” Martin said. “For a long time it was a strategy thing, to not be allowed to identify as Native. A lot of people were erased from census records, so it’s really gratifying to see people reconnecting with it. I would not be surprised if the number in New Hampshire doubled through 2020.”
Today, there are more than 7,000 Native Americans and Alaska Natives living in New Hampshire.
Martin said at UNH, it wasn’t until the Indigenous New Hampshire Collaborative Collective began to gain momentum that some faculty members began to openly identify as of indigenous descent. As a non-Native person teaching Native studies, Martin noted she tries to be extremely conscious “of me not being the voice on Native people.”
Lawrence J. Yerdon, president and CEO of Strawbery Banke, said it has “long been a goal of the museum to expand its interpretation of the Abenaki people.”
“Depending on how things go, it’s been indicated it could grow from here,” Jennison said. “What we’ve got here is a really good beginning.”
It’s estimated approximately 95,000 people visit Strawbery Banke over the course of one year.
This week, Maine officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, with the signature of Gov. Janet Mills. According to the New York Times, at least six states and 130 cities and towns have now renamed the holiday, which as Columbus Day, has been a federal holiday since 1934. Italian explorer Christopher Columbus reportedly committed atrocities against Native people, and many feel the holiday glorifies him over those who inhabited the land prior.
In New Hampshire, the future of the holiday isn’t so certain. In February, legislators put off deciding whether Columbus Day would be renamed. House Bill 221 remains stalled. The town of Durham is believed to be the first in the state to vote in favor of the switch to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“People of the Dawnland” is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is included in regular museum admission.
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com