Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Traditional Passamaquoddy fish basket, at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine.
I loved visiting national parks with my father when I was growing up. We went to some of the biggest - Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. From behind-the-wheel or horseback we would gaze upon this country’s greatest natural wonders. I loved the beauty, history, science – everything about the parks on those family trips.
After leaving the park I would beg my father to pull over at every other roadside souvenir shop and sometimes he would oblige – mostly when it was at a more “authentic” one where Native Americans sold exquisite bead work, bracelets, colorful pottery and moccasins.
I don’t honestly remember asking a lot of questions about Native Americans on those trips, or in general in my youth. I cannot now say why, which is sad.
It was not until I moved to Maine a little over a decade ago and went to an exhibit at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine and saw an exhibit on birchbark canoes that I really began to appreciate Native American history and culture. A few years later I learned more about the Native Americans in Maine via an exhibit on English explorer George Weymouth at the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine. However, it is at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine where I have been truly engaged in understanding Native American peoples.
As I mentioned in this post (the first of the Root’s series on Native Americans in Maine), I believe to write about Maine’s food sources it is essential to look at the practices of those early Native Americans who inhabited Northern New England.
There are four time periods archaeologists refer to when talking about Native American history – Paleoindian Period (12,000 – 9,000 years ago), Archaic Period (9,000 – 3,000 years ago), Ceramic Period (3,000 – 500 years ago), and the Contact Period (1550 – 1750 A.D.). However conversation is mostly divided between pre and post-Contact as marked by Christopher Columbus arrival in the New World in 1492.
The arrival of Europeans dramatically changed the Native American population. It is estimated that between 25,000 – 27,000 Native Americans died in Maine from smallpox and other diseases Europeans brought with them. **Some estimates have the numbers as much lower, but it is impossible to know without any records from that time.
Today, there are four federally recognized Indian tribes in Maine: Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy. The Passamaquoddy, whose territory was centralized around the St. Croix River down to about Mount Desert Island (MDI), is who I will be focusing on in this post.
Passamaquoddy Indians in Maine today are primarily concentrated in Pleasant Point Reservation in Washington County.
"Passamaquoddy" is an Anglicization of the Passamaquoddy word Peskotomuhkat, which literally means "pollock-spearer" or "those of the place where Pollock are plentiful."
The Passamaquoddy were hunters and gatherers, their lives linked to the seasons, the woods and bodies of water where they could fish. Farming was not part of their culture. When they wanted items such as corn and beans they traded with tribes further south.
Some geographic locations around MDI are named for resources the Passamaquoddy relied upon. Following are a couple examples:
They built birchbark canoes and collected eggs from seabirds on islands = Egg Rock or Wawonok.
They dug clams = Bar Harbor or Moneskatik, meaning clam digging place.
The Passamaquoddy's primary method of fishing was spearing. They also used some nets and fish weirs to trap the fish, but even then fishing almost always involved a spear.
For nearly four centuries a traditional food source of the Passamaquoddy were alewives. Due to some controversy between sportsmen and environmentalists in the 1980s the St. Croix watershed was closed to the alewives (a migratory fish in streams and rivers) in the early 1990s. This past summer, after two decades, the Maine law was repealed and now alewives will be able to return. Whether their population will ever be restored to what it once was remains to be seen.
However, the people once named for spearing Pollock are unlikely to find any in Passamaquoddy Bay. I was informed by George Neptune, museum educator at the Abbe Museum, that current generations of Passamaquoddy have not speared any in years, because a bridge built from Eastport to Pleasant Point obscured the annual pollock run through Passamaquoddy Bay. Combined with laws that made spear fishing illegal, and the pursuit of pollock in the fishing industry, the presence of Pollock in the Passamaquoddy Bay is now considered a rare occurrence.
“That’s literally how we define ourselves and an entire piece of our identity is gone,” said Neptune. “There were stories told when I was a kid of the Pollock run being so thick that you could see them on the beach at low time. They said it was almost like you could walk across the water on the backs of the fish, because there were so many. There were times the Pollock run was so strong you didn’t even need a spear, you just picked them out of the water and threw them into a basket on the beach. That hasn’t happened for a very long time.”
Passamaquoddy cooking would have been very simple a few hundred years ago with fish or game meat cooked over an open flame, possibly sweetened by maple sugar (depending on the season) and accompanied by berries and other foraged items.
A couple books exist with recipes of Native Americans – The Mitsam Café Cookbook by Richard Hetzler (available online and at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian) and the Passamaquoddy/Maliseet Reference Book (available for sale at/from the Abbe Museum).
Many of the recipes in those books call for ingredients that would not have been accessible even a hundred years ago, however as Neptune explained to me the way Native Americans see their culture is just because something is modern, does not make it not traditional. Traditions can adapt and change to their surroundings over time, just as Native people always adapted to their environment. Certain traditions cannot be kept alive in many modern social/political structures, so rather than allowing them to die out, they are adapted.
Sometimes new traditions come from negative consequences; take the history of bread in Native communities. Tom Francis (bread) is the Wabanaki name for Fry Bread or Indian Bread, and is the direct result of the United States government forcibly moving Native Americans from their lands onto reservations during the 19th century. There are versions of this bread recipe on various blogs online, including the popular Pioneer Woman site, however most ignore the tragic story about how this staple of the Native American diet came to be.
Native Americans were not allowed to leave the reservation system, so food rations were primarily provided in the form of white flour and grease. Some Native Americans see this as an attempt by the U.S. Government to exterminate them as opposed to trying to keep them alive. It’s not hard to see why they would think this.
“Fry Bread is very similar to the fried dough one would find at a state fair,” said Neptune. “It was made on reservations from the rations we were expected to survive on. It means a lot to Native people, because it represents the history of them literally attempting to starve us and us finding a way around it and being able to survive.”
The bread became a staple of Native households, leading to high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one slice of Fry Bread the size of a large paper plate has about 25 grams of fat.
Tom Francis (Tumahsisey) bread from the Passamaquoddy/Maliseet Reference Book available for sale at/from the Abbe Museum.
2 cups flour
Baking powder (1 tsp double acting, 2 tsp if regular)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar (optional)
Spring water or milk
Mix all ingredients together and add your liquid to your desired consistency. Fry in oil on medium heat until brown. Cook slow.
Fry Bread from The Mitsitam Café Cookbook by Richard Hetzler
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar
¾ cup milk, plus more if necessary
Corn or canola oil for deep-frying
Sugar mixed with ground cinnamon for topping (optional)
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Stir with a whisk to blend. Stir in ¾ cup of milk to make a stiff dough, adding a bit more if necessary. On a lightly floured board, divide the dough into six pieces. Form each into a ball, then roll into a disk about ¼ inch thick.
In a Dutch oven or deep fryer, heat three inches oil to 350 on a deep-fat thermometer. Using a sharp knife, cut an X in the center of each dough disk. Place one disk at a time in the hot oil and cook until golden brown, about two minutes on each side. Using tongs, transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Keep warm in a low oven while frying the remaining disks.
Serve at once, either plain or sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
Yield: 6 round flat breads.
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.