Looking for Indigenous Presence in Allen Island

Professor Isabel Quintana Wulf – On April 20-21 I had the pleasure of bringing students from my EN398 Space and Place in Contemporary Native American Literatureclass to Allen Island. The course focuses on understanding the importance of “space” (abstract concept denoting a geographical area) and “place” (a space that is tied to the history and lived experience of a people) for thinking about Native ways of living in the world and for understanding the themes in contemporary Native American literature.

In the class, we have thought about the differences between Euro-American cartographic practices and Indigenous mapmaking to consider different understandings of place and the role they occupy in Western and Indigenous systems of knowledge. We have read literary works by Native authors that deal with histories of removal, relocation, allotment, forced boarding school education, museums, sovereignty, endurance, and survivance—all the time keeping ideas about place and identity in the forefront.

For the last couple of weeks, we have read texts by writers of the Wabenaki Confederacy, including Penobscot, Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaq writers. Using Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, edited by Siobhan Senier, students have learned more about the peoples whose lands we occupy and have thought about how space and place come together in our understanding of the cultural and geographical palimpsests we live on. We went out to Allen Island with all the knowledge about Wabenaki people in our minds.

Following the arc of the class, Allen Island provided the perfect landscape to think about how, as anthropologist Keith Basso’s explains, “when places are actively sensed, the physical landscape becomes wedded to the landscape of the mind” (Wisdom Sits in Places). As we contemplated the beautifully curated landscape of Allen Island, we thought about space and place together: what ideologies are represented in the buildings we see on the island? Where do we find Indigenous presence in it? How do the visible structures in the island reshape the narrative of that place?

Jake Ward opened the Sail Loft for us and we were able to see the birch bark canoe that Passamaquoddy crafter David Moses Bridges made in the early 2000s. Jake regaled us with tales of his experience as a participant in the project and all he learned about it—his personal experience touched the students deeply and they appreciated his bonhomie and the time he made for us and our thousand questions. He also showed us the cardboard boxes containing archeological findings that are waiting to be catalogued and moved to the museum’s collection of drawers.

All in all, the trip was a wonderful experience for us, made all the more fantastic by the sunshine of Saturday morning—sunshine that brought hopes of spring to the chilled landscape of late-April St. George’s peninsula!

Here are some of the reflections of my students after the trip:

“This was my second visit to Allen Island this year, and although the experiences were very similar in some ways, I really enjoyed going with this class because I saw the island in a different context. Being able to see the work that Jake and his crew are doing with the museum was an element of the island that I didn’t previously know much about. It was very interesting to see the artifacts that have been collected on the island, and have a better idea of how the museum will present the history of the island, as well as Andrew Wyath’s artwork. As a group, I enjoyed being able to discuss the concept of place, and how people can impose different histories onto a landscape. The colonial structures are beautiful, and paint a picture of 19th century living, even though the interiors of the buildings are very modern. 

I also really enjoyed being able to spend time by the ocean. Traveling to the island clears my head and having the space from Colby’s campus is very cleansing. The sun and the waves gave me some much needed vitamin D and was very refreshing. The landscape is so unique, as it combines old growth forest with grassy pastures and rocky cliffs. I appreciated exploring with my peers and discovering a part of Maine that so few people get to experience. I am always impressed when I look at the horizon and can see no land in the distance. It is a humbling view. Lastly, I am grateful for the opportunity to spend more time with my classmates and create bonds with peers that transfers back to campus, proving that this field trip will have a lasting impact on all of us. Thank you!”

“Going to Allen Island with my Native American Literature class was an amazing interdisciplinary learning experience. The class focuses on space and place, which is a unique and prevalent concept in Native American Literature. Allen Island, with its extensive history and beauty, was a prime place to consider how space and place differ and what they can look like in different contexts.  Being from the West Coast, there are many more reservations and learning centers for Native Culture, but most Natives were pushed out of the Northeast early on, and their presence is much less obvious in contemporary times if you aren’t looking for it. Allen Island was also a good place to study Native American presence on the East Coast today. Looking at native artifacts and a relatively untouched landscape made it easier to envision how Native people may have lived all over Maine, perhaps even on the land that Colby now occupies. 

Allen Island also was also the catalyst for a wonderful discussion about our role today towards the preservation of Native culture. It is easy to say that colonization is bad, but is harder to consider what actions can be taken today to equalize opportunities for those that are negatively affected by the lasting effects of colonization. The thoughts and conversation that stemmed from the Allen Island trip helped clarify my role as a college student, person of privilege, and change maker. It made me want to think less just about what is wrong with the system, but also how it can be constructively criticized, and what changes can be made to make things better. 

On a lighter note, Allen Island is also simply a place of aesthetic beauty and restoration. Although some of the plants are similar to inland Maine, the island and its associated activities felt very separate from my hectic college life. Thank you to all who made the opportunity possible!”

“Being able to visit Allen Island was an incredible educational experience for me.  I found it to be completely different and much more engaging than what I had expected.  It was very cool to consider the rewriting the narrative of the Island to completely be centered around Wyeth and his paintings instead of the American Indian history of the island.  The governmental involvement in the rewriting, by registering the buildings as historic sites to serve as a place to “give a sense of orientation to the American people” as the certificates say, also made me wonder which American people this Island was aimed at orienting.  Something about the fact that it was an Island made this experience and thinking about its history more immersive.  Overall, I’m very glad that I went.”