The rapidly changing climate in Maine and New England is affecting lives – those of the people who depend on the region’s waters, as well as the species that live there. At the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, a new exhibit explores the connection between the First People and the northern waters, and how that relationship is evolving in reaction to climate change and pollution.
The exhibit is a collaboration between the museum and Maritime Indigenous Artists, Inc. It features work by nine artists from New England and the Canadian Maritimes.
“The name of the exhibit is wolankeyutomon. It’s a Mi’kmaq word and it translates to ‘take care of everything’” says Jodi DeBruyne, the director of collections and research at the Abbe. “It really embraced the idea that taking care of the water is taking care of ourselves, and everything is connected, and it’s everyone’s responsibility.”
The exhibit shows that the tribes in Maine are part of a larger cultural and political confederacy that predates modern borders.
“As First Nation people, we’ve always viewed an interconnectedness to the water, to the land, to the animals and to nature, and it’s a unique way of looking at the world, in that we really revere all that makes life sustainable,” says Norma Jean Saulis.
Saulis and her husband, Allan, are the curators of the new exhibit and the founders of the artists' coalition, Maritime Indigenous Artists (MIA).
MIA is a “network where we talk with each other and give each other information, and promote each other,” Norma Jean Saulis says. “We came up with (the name) ‘MIA’ — synonymous with 'missing in action' — because we didn’t feel that the tribes were having much of a voice in the art world, and we really wanted them to have a voice.”
In addition to contemporary art, the exhibit features a display of massive whale bones and preserved specimens of marine life, on loan from the Dorr Museum of Natural History in Bar Harbor.
“It’s really cool to combine science and art and nature and to make those connections that the animals in the art that we’re talking about are real beings,” says DeBruyne.
The exhibit is also lent context by being in the Abbe, among the museum’s other culture and history exhibits. This mix of science, history and contemporary art helps to connect Indigenous people’s history to what their lives might be like now.
“Some people seem to think Indigenous people aren’t still here,” says Jill Sawyer, associate director of advancement at the Abbe. “Contemporary art is a great way to bridge the gap between history and now.”
The Saulis’ are using their art not only to bridge a knowledge gap, but to bring attention to environmental issues.
“We’ve been concerned about global warming and, particularly, about all the plastics,” says Allan Saulis.
The exhibit highlights this concern. One painting, by Nicholas Paul, depicts a beached whale with trash spilling out of its mouth. A bowl sculpted by Nancy Oakley called “Hidden Truth” is made from clay, sweetgrass, sand and shells — and embedded with garbage, including cigarette butts. When you remove the display glass, DeBruyne says, “you can still smell the cigarette smoke.” The Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic at the bottom of the bowl means “save me.”
One of Norma Jean Saulis’ contributions to the exhibit is a soft sculpture of an endangered North Atlantic right whale, adorned with traditional, intricate Wabanaki floral beadwork.
“The right whale is not the most attractive looking whale, but it’s still an important part of our ecosystem,” she says. “One of the things I says in creating my piece, Woli-Putep (beautiful whale), is that I really wanted to show that sometimes if we have a sensitivity or have something look beautiful to us, then we’re able to bond with that, we’re able to understand that and want to make a difference.”
Saulis says she hopes this aesthetic appeal can encourage people to see the right whale in a new light and work to help preserve it.
“Using contemporary art and exhibits, different ways of framing this connection, I think, it addresses this presupposed narrative that native people aren’t in this landscape,” says Dr. Darren J. Ranco, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Coordinator of Native American Research at the University of Maine.
Ranco specializes in Native American issues and environmental justice studies. He says that, traditionally, Wabanaki cultures are tied to both inland waters and ocean waters, and those ties have changed over the last several hundred years due to a combination of pollution and new policy from colonizers. These changes, he says, are affecting Wabanaki people today.
“Indigenous people who are out fishing are really observant of the impact of warming waters on marine mammals and other species in the ocean and we see the location and territories of fish changing and folks whose livelihoods depend on it for subsistence,” says Ranco. “Climate change is happening, and the exhibit places some cultural context around these changes.”
The curators say they hope that the exhibit encourages people to take steps to protect the waters.
“Of course the overall outcome would be that the artists from this area of the world would be able to have a voice and be able to show their artwork, but the overall outcome and why we are artists is so we can put a focus on things in our world, like the need to be protective of our oceans,” says Norma Jean Saulis. “A lot of people will go through and I really believe that helps make a big difference, that’s how change begins.”
Allan Soulis agrees.
“I hope it shocks the hell out of them,” he says.
wolankeyutomon: Take Care of Everything, opens Thursday, March 21 at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.
Originally published 10:31 a.m. March 20, 2019.