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Indigenizing Archaeology at Acadia National Park

“Community members shouldn’t have to go to second-hand sources about their first-hand experiences.”
- Issac St. John, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, University of New Brunswick, graduate student

On a small point of land on the shore of the Schoodic Peninsula, rocky shore gives way to softer sediment. Waves lap at the foot of small bluffs, moving sand and broken shell onto a beach strewn with dried seaweed and frayed fishing rope. Roots of spruce and birch trees and grass hold the land in place.

A few apple trees hint at past human presence, but there is deeper history here: along the edge, piles of clam shells mark a space where, between one and two thousand years ago, ancestors of the Wabanaki people came together to harvest and share food, to interact and relate, to live.

At least 24 Indigenous archaeological sites have been documented within the boundaries of Acadia National Park; only few have been studied.

In 1978, a team of four student archaeologists led by Dr. David Sanger of the University of Maine excavated the Schoodic site. Their purpose was “to identify the nature of the sites including their age and cultural affiliation, the range of activities that occurred, and an assessment of the desirability of further research activity at the sites in order to gain additional useful data.”

earth erodes into the ocean along shoreline
Erosion at Frazer Point along the Schoodic Peninsula.

Schoodic Institute.

Trowels in hand, they dug meter-square test pits, five centimeters at a time, sifting the dirt through screens, recording and removing “artifacts” and “specimens.” Their work preserved archaeological materials that may have otherwise been lost to rising sea level and shoreline erosion.

“A previous survey had identified the presence of the site based on the eroding shell. We conducted more intensive excavations. We wanted to find out the size and extent of the site, so we could provide management recommendations to the National Park Service. We looked for certain objects, such as decorated pottery and projectile points, that would indicate when the site was occupied, based on timelines established by archaeologists,” said Rebecca Cole-Will, Program Manager for Cultural and Natural Resources at Acadia National Park and St. Croix National Historic Site, and one of the archaeologists who worked at the site in 1978.

A larger group of people were involved in the laboratory analysis, measuring and describing the “specimens.” All of them were of European heritage, conducting archaeology consistent with their academic training. Their report includes 11 tables, 8 figures, and 15 photographs. They concluded that further excavations were unlikely to “enlarge much on our general understanding of the nature of the sites.” They catalogued and numbered the artifacts, carefully packed them into blue-gray cardboard boxes, and put them on a shelf in park archives.

And there they sat for forty years until 2020, when a different team of archaeologists from the University of Maine pulled the boxes off the shelf. Dr. Bonnie Newsom, assistant professor with the University of Maine’s Anthropology Department and Climate Change Institute, along with graduate students Natalie Dana Lolar and Isaac St. John, carefully removed stone pieces, bone splinters, and baked clay fragments from their special archival plastic bags and spread them out on a table. They paused for a moment.

Newsom, Lolar, and St. John are trained archaeologists and members of different Wabanaki tribes. They were the first Wabanaki people to see the objects since those who created them more than a thousand years ago.

“I felt a real privilege to see what Dr. Sanger’s team recovered,” said Newsom (Penobscot) “but it was a very sad reality. I thought to myself, others in our communities should have the same opportunity.”

Newsom, whose research is supported by Second Century Stewardship, is determined to reconnect Wabanaki communities with their archaeological heritage. Where previous archaeologists believed “the ethnographic record in Maine is poorly adapted to providing useful clues for past human behavior,” Newsom, Lolar, and St. John bring Indigenous meaning and purpose to their science.

Archaeological sites represent a continuity of Indigenous presence in place. Archaeological materials are evidence for past lifeways of Indigenous families with meaning to Indigenous communities today.

“Our work is designed to connect the past to the present by approaching our material analyses from a place of Indigeneity, placing our deep time relationships at the center of our inquiry,” said Newsom.

A sense of urgency also underlies the work. Rising seas and intensifying storms have already eroded away many archaeological sites in Acadia.

“These sites have value for strengthening our culture,” said Newsom. “Climate change is adding another dimension to our cultural loss.”

“Erosion is the erasure of stories and knowledge from ancestral sites. We cannot know the whole story if pieces are taken away,” said Lolar (Passamaquoddy and Penobscot).

Reconnecting their communities is important to the students as well.

While researching history of the Maliseet people as an undergraduate anthropology major, Isaac St. John (Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians) was frustrated by the many gaps in information.

“Having to go to outside sources for information about my own community made me want to do this work,” he said. “Community members shouldn’t have to go to second-hand sources about their first-hand experiences.”

Their approach includes not just information, who collects it, and how it is shared, but the language they use.

In the 1978 report, more text describes geology and previous archaeological work than discusses the people who created the shell heaps. Likewise in the pages describing the artifacts, people are referenced only indirectly: a stone point that showed “extremely fine workmanship,” or estimated years of “occupation.”

“It was never about who was here, or what they were doing,” said Rebecca Cole-Will of the twentieth-century investigation.

“Historical narratives removed people,” said Lolar, who became interested in archaeology after visiting a local excavation with family members when she was in eighth grade. “We are using a vocabulary that puts people back into the story.”

Sharp points, arrowheads, or “bifaces” are stone creations made by their relatives. Stone and bone “tools” and “pottery” are gifts and art. Instead of calling the coastal sites shell “middens,” which suggests trash, they prefer terms like heap or mound, which suggest intentionality.

Artifacts have agency. “These objects reflect the souls of our ancestors, who intentionally created them, who are contained within them,”said Lolar.

Lolar and St. John are identifying words in their native Wabanaki languages to describe the creations. They also hope to learn more about the bone items and the animals they were made from, and how they were made.

The team is working closely with the National Park Service to interpret and preserve the collections. The National Park Service must consult with federally recognized Indian Tribes on a government-to-government basis.

“However, the work we are doing here at Acadia, I hope, extends the meaning of consultation by recognizing the inherent right of descendant communities to have access to, and intellectual control of, knowledge about heritage cultural resources and how they are managed,” said Cole-Will.

As Newsom, Lolar, and St. John draft plans to relate their findings to their communities, they are, at the same time, transforming stewardship of land and water in Acadia.


Article by Catherine Schmitt Science Communication Specialist, Schoodic Institute