When Carolyn Eyler arrived in Maine in the late 1990s, she remembers being struck by how many people she met of French heritage and how many had a Native-American background.

“Unlike the high visibility of the French heritage, at least in southern Maine it feels like the Wabanaki heritage is much more muted,” observed Eyler.

As director of the Art Gallery at the University of Southern Maine, Eyler has tried to elevate the profile of the art and culture of Maine’s American Indian tribes — the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, collectively known as the Wabanaki.

She curated a native basket exhibition several years ago, and has followed the American Indian art scene closely, waiting for the opportunity to mount a significant exhibition focusing on contemporary Native-American art.

On Friday, she opens “The Turtle/Television Island Project.” The show is a collaborative exhibition spotlighting the work of James Luna, a performance artist from California with an international following, and Penobscot author and birch bark artist Jean Thompson, also known by the Native-American name Ssipsis.

It’s a landmark event, because it marks Luna’s first exhibition in Maine and also the first major focus on the work of Ssipsis, a respected Maine author and birch-bark artist, who, like Luna, is also known for social activism.

“The Turtle/Television Island Project” links two very different artists whose work is bound by its bold nature and oftentimes challenging subject matter.

Luna, 59, is a Mexican-American performance artist and multimedia installation artist living on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in California, near San Diego. He participated in the Venice (Italy) Biennale in 2005, and will serve as artist in residence at USM as part of his participation in the show.

Ssipsis, 69, lives on Indian Island and is part of the first generation of Native-American artists who have relearned and recovered lost Native-American arts. She is best known for her utilitarian and decorative work in birch bark.

In 1970, Ssipsis led a protest at Old Town, serving an eviction notice to the town citing the Penobscot interpretation of a treaty agreement. The protest, which included the eviction notice written on a birch bark scroll, garnered a lot of attention at the time, and elevated Ssipsis into legendary status among the Wabanaki, Eyler said.

“The Turtle/Television Island Project” will feature Luna’s photographs, performance videos and objects from culture that Luna uses for commentary and humor. The exhibition also will include Ssipsis’ birch bark artifacts, examples of her writing and a documentary material related to her activism. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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