For the last 153 years, the University of Maine campus has occupied the traditional territory of the Penobscot Nation.
Now the University and the Penobscot government say they have come to an agreement that guarantees access to all of the school’s Penobscot cultural heritage items, and solidifies the informal relationship that has been growing over the past years.
A Memorandum of Understanding signed in May will create a space for the two groups to collaborate. This fall, signs will go up around campus with Penobscot place names in Penobscot language. Collections of Penobscot artifacts will be inventoried, catalogued, digitized and made available through an Indigenous heritage social media site.
"At its core [the memorandum] is a reflection of the Penobscot Nation acting as a sovereign entity, as a community, as a Nation, to really be the center for our own cultural heritage,” says Darren Ranco, the chair of Native American Programs and coordinator of Native American Research at the University of Maine.
He says, "As someone who's a member of the Penobscot Nation, I'm very invested personally in that work and creating really positive, mutually beneficial relationships and understanding the roles that both Native and non-Native people can have.”
Ranco says this new chapter in the relationship with the tribe includes a focus on assuring that the Penobscot people become more connected and involved in the research community.
As a land-grant, service-based institution with cooperative extensions across the state, the University’s mandate includes community-oriented research, and Ranco says Native populations in Maine will be more involved in that mission.
"We have our own research questions,” Ranco says. “We have our own set of issues that we would want to have researchers help us with and to set the table in a way where we're the ones asking the questions."
Ranco says there is a long history of Native people being the subject of research, which advanced the careers of academics, but offered little benefit to Native people. And Ranco also believes the new relationship with the Nation will improve the quality of Indigenous student life on campus.
"I think a lot of this engagement with outside entities allows us to map a world where you can and should be Penobscot in the space of the University," Ranco says. "Before, our Native students would never see themselves or their cultural traditions or knowledge traditions in a curriculum."
Some classes at the University already offer Indigenous youth instruction in science through the lens of Penobscot ecological knowledge, which is part of Ranco’s role as Chair of Native American Programs. The Penobscot have traditional ways of managing the environment that add perspective to the European traditions of science.
Ranco says that for many Penobscot basket makers and artists, the projects associated with the Memorandum of Understanding are a way to communicate with their ancestors. The weave of a basket shows the choices of the artist, which is a way of engaging in a conversation with an ancestor.
"Being able to access museum collections is important to see how my ancestors made things and to be inspired by that,” says Jennifer Neptune.
Neptune runs the Nation’s museum and the museum shop, and also curates and takes care of the objects.
Neptune has recreated two ceremonial beaded collars by examining the originals. She got her degree in anthropology, she says, because of her passion for Penobscot history.
"The things our ancestors made were amazing!” Neptune says. “The designs are really powerful and beautiful, and I think that renews people's pride in their own heritage and their ancestors to actually see these things come to life again."
Neptune says that anthropologists bought cultural heritage items from Indigenous people when they had no choice but to sell them. And now a lot of those items are spread across the country and are hard to get to from the reservation.
"It's created a huge hole in our communities,” Neptune says.
She's seen museum basements full of Penobscot items that aren't being displayed, and pulled out drawer after drawer filled with moccasins, dance rattles, knives, and peaked caps, and many other items.
"It makes you proud to see them because they're beautiful, but it also hurts, too, to know they’re in a drawer and not being used, and not being loved, and that there's children that don't even know how amazing their culture is," Neptune says.
"I think through art we get a true expression of our cultural values,” James Francis says. He’s the director of Cultural and Historic Preservation for the Penobscot Nation. “So art has been a way of sustaining us as a people, our cultural identity, but also sustaining us as supplementing incomes or in some cases, an artists sole income was to be a basketmaker."
Francis is also a photographer and artist, and he paints drums with scenes of nature and Indigenous life that are displayed in the Nation’s museum. He is also Jennifer Neptune’s husband.
To help provide access to cultural heritage items, the Penobscot Nation is building a website on mukurtu.org. Mukurtu was created as a space for Indigenous Australians to keep digital versions of cultural heritage items, like photos of artifacts and people, recordings, and videos. The name Mukurtu comes from an Indigenous Australian word for a bag where sacred items are kept.
The creators of the website are now helping other Indigenous populations around the world, including the Penobscot Nation, to do the same. There are social media elements to the site, but only tribal members can log in to see certain items and to leave comments.
"It really is powerful in allowing us to create a safe environment digitally, for Penobscots all over the world to enjoy this stuff,” Francis says, “and feel confident that if they type something only Penobscots are going to see it."
The focus now is a push towards making sure that all Penobscot cultural heritage items are catalogued. This includes artifacts, relics and stone lithics in the basement of Stevens Hall. The catalogue will note if any of the items are red ochre, which would indicate funeral remains. There are also items in the Fogler Library that no one has ever inventoried.
Darren Ranco says the state of the relationship between the University and the Penobscot Nation is ever improving, but there is still work to be done.
“I feel so lucky that I'm not alone in my concern about this relationship, both here at the University of Maine and also at the Penobscot Nation."
Additional reporting contributed by Celie Deagle.
Lucia Helder and Celie Deagle are the 2018 Dowe Interns at Maine Public.
This story was originally published Aug. 10, 2018 at 12:11 p.m. ET.