Down East 2013 ©
by Bunny McBride and Harald Prins
Image Courtesy Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 23 August 1884. Author’s Collection.
From the 1860s onward, Wabanaki families set up camp on Mount Desert Island each summer primarily to sell hand-crafted goods. Reflecting long-established marketing practices used all across northeast America, Indians peddled their baskets and other wares door-to-door and set up simple booths to display their trade goods at boat landings. They also encouraged customers to come to their sale tents at the encampments. Over the decades, the location of Bar Harbor’s seasonal Indian village shifted, but wherever it was it drew a stream of curiosity seekers and customers.
Before 1890, the Bar Harbor encampments featured a range of dwellings — from birch-bark wigwams to canvas tents to wooden shacks or shanties faced with strips of bark or wooden planks. The greatest number and variety of images and descriptions of the encampment date from the time it was located along the Frenchman Bay shore between Bar Harbor’s steamboat wharf and the sandbar stretching between the town’s north shore and Bar Island — although there are a fair number of drawings and photographs of the camp made during the years it was situated at locations a bit westward near Hamor’s Wharf and the Eddy Brook outlet and southward at the Ledgelawn site.
Some members of the Wabanaki summer community slept in wooden shacks clustered near the sale tents. A few managed to rent rooms from locals in poor parts of town. Others slept in the back of their sale tents, either because they had no other place to stay or to guard their goods. Indians who were just passing through for a few days sometimes slept shoreside under an overturned canoe.
Wabanakis not only abandoned their traditional bark wigwams, but also their distinctive traditional clothing, moccasins, and hats as part of the adjustments necessary to earn wages as seasonal laborers competing for jobs in mainstream American society. However, those depending on the sale of traditional indigenous medicines, handmade baskets, and other native arts and crafts recognized that dominant society’s ambivalent racism provided them with commercial opportunity that could be enhanced by stereotypical self-fashioning.
Conforming to the “American Indian” image then becoming popular with the general public, some began to dress the part, feathers and all. Often borrowing from Plains Indian styles popularized in Wild West shows, they donned neo-traditional garb. In addition, during the 1880s in particular, some tribal entrepreneurs attracted buyers by placing regular ads in the local papers, describing their wares and noting that the camp was “perfectly safe for anyone to visit.”
Looking historically at Indian-white relations, we see a turn toward the bizarre at Mount Desert Island in 1900. Although all across the United States it had become quite common for white children and even adults to “play Indian,” this was the year when Bar Harbor saw its social life enriched with the founding of its own “tribe” (chapter) of the “Improved Order of Red Men Society.” A national patriotic organization, which restricted membership to white Protestant males in good social standing, the “Red Men Society” had been founded in the 1830s. As the oldest of various patriotic societies in the country, it was also the most widespread, especially in the eastern states. The Bar Harbor chapter, number 86 among the 116 groups ultimately established in Maine, took its name from one of the five so-called “civilized” tribes — the Cherokee. One cannot help wondering what the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians, almost all of whom were Roman Catholics in addition to belonging to authentic tribes, actually thought when they found out that their esteemed white Protestant “brothers” had become “Cherokee.” A commentary about the organization, written in 1928 when “tribes” were still active, offers a window on the nationalism at the heart of it:
“One of the largest fraternal societies and the oldest and largest strictly American fraternity is the Improved Order of Red Men. . . . The earlier patriots, who founded the Old Sons of Liberty in Colonial times, never knew what real American liberty was, they having lived under kings all their lives, and having no vote or voice in some of the most important matters pertaining to their own government. Their first vision of real freedom was caught from the wild [Indians], who roamed the forests at will rejoicing in the unrestrained occupation of this great new world; who selected their own sachems and forms of religious worship; and who made their own laws and tribal regulations, which were few and simple . . . while the white men, who came here, were continually followed up and hampered by unreasonable laws and regulations, imposed by a distant king and his local appointees . . . and were burdened by unjust taxes. They began to chafe under their thralldom, which finally resulted in the “Boston Tea Party,” the Declaration of Independence, and the War of the Revolution. . . .
“The cardinal principles of the order are Freedom, Friendship, and Charity. One of the greatest works of charity done by the order is the care of indigent orphan children in private homes. The order is now caring for some 3143 orphans annually. . . .
“The word ‘Redmanship’ means Americanism. The history of the Improved Order of Red Men is coincident with that of the United States of America. It is a purely pure American organization. To become a member of the Improved Order of Red Men, one must be a white American citizen.”
So it was that white Protestant patriots, seeking to express their American nationalism through a largely imaginary “Native” cultural repertoire, invented traditions they considered representative of “the sublimity and grandeur of the unsullied characteristics of the primitive race.” Conforming to the “Indian” character of their clubs, called “tribes,” they ranked their officers as sachems, sagamores, and braves, and gathered around a “council fire” kindled in the center of their “wigwam.” They also donned quasi (Plains) Indian costumes and used Indian calumets (pipes) and other “paraphernalia” in their meetings. Notably, all documents of the Order were dated from the year of the “discovery” of America by Columbus (G.S.D. = Grand Sun of the Discovery). Thus, the founding date of Bar Harbor’s Cherokee Tribe was G.S.D.408. It was all indicative of a profound ambivalent racism of which they themselves were hardly aware, if at all.
While America’s indigenous peoples were expected to disappear, if not biologically then at least culturally, the invented Indian of the white man’s imagination was becoming an omnipresent fetish of American popular culture, appearing in a growing array of forms — from “improved” Red Men societies to postcards to advertising logos. In time, the list would grow to include everything from sports team mascots to the names of fighter planes. As noted in the Portland Tribune in 1844: “We are more in love with Indian names in this country than we are with the Indians themselves, and often having despoiled them of their lands, their lakes, and territories, the sentimentalists are very desirous of complimenting them by restoring aboriginal titles.”
Excerpted from Indians in Eden; Down East Books, Camden, Maine; paperback; 184 pages; $16.95. Available at www.DownEast.com