The Wabanaki: People of the Dawnland

Native American peoples have inhabited the land we now call Maine for 12,000 years. Today four distinct tribes—the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot—are known collectively as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland.”

Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park have remained in the center of Wabanaki traditional homelands for thousands of years. Long before Europeans arrived, the Wabanaki traveled here in seaworthy birchbark canoes. Setting up temporary camps near places like Somes Sound, they hunted, fished, gathered berries, harvested clams, and traded with other Wabanaki. Some called Mount Desert Island “Pemetic,” meaning “range of mountains.”

In the nineteenth century, Wabanaki people came to sell their handmade ash and birchbark baskets to wealthy travelers, and to harvest precious basket-making resources like sweetgrass. Summer tourists and summer residents alike were entertained by elaborate Wabanaki dance performances at venues such as Sieur de Monts and the town of Bar Harbor. Led by Wabanaki guides, canoe trips around Frenchman Bay and the Cranberry Islands were a convenient and pleasurable way for visitors to reach the outer islands.

Today, each tribe has a reservation and government headquarters located within their territories throughout Maine. Still, Wabanaki people have a unique and spiritual relationship with this land, from the first rays of dawn seen from Cadillac Mountain to the last light of dusk slipping behind Bar Island. Many Wabanaki people today come for much the same reasons as others—to hike the mountain trails and enjoy the striking scenery. Yet some still come to gather precious sweetgrass, sell handmade baskets, and to show respect for this sacred landscape, as their ancestors did for thousands of years.

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