Henry Wadsworth Longfellow might not have known what to make of the fifth annual Maine Historical Society event named in his honor, but the 250 modern-day guests were impressed.

The highlight of the May 10 fundraiser at Portland Masonic, called Mr. Longfellow’s Cocktail Party, was a Wabanaki-inspired fashion show, with traditional music and lighting inspired by the Aurora Borealis bringing a hush of anticipation over the crowd. When the 20-foot armory doors were opened, there stood Geo Soctomah Neptune, a Wabanaki basketmaker in a dress inspired by a fancy dyed-brown ash basket, the first of 12 models walking the runway in designs by Decontie & Brown. By the end of the show, when Dalaylun Demmons of Milford walked the runway in a hand-painted forsythia-inspired wedding gown with flowered top hat, the reception was warmer – by far – than spring.

“That fashion show was certainly off the charts,” said board member Meredith Strang Burgess, wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress she had commissioned in Hanoi while on a Maine Historical Society trip last October.

“This is probably not what you expected for an old Yankee historical society,” said Executive Director Stephen Bromage. “Next year is Maine’s bicentennial, and we felt that you couldn’t look at 200 years of state history without first looking at 13,000 years of Wabanaki history.”

Maine Historical Society’s exhibit “Holding Up the Sky,” open through Feb. 1, focuses on Wabanaki philosophies of leadership and obligation and includes a variety of items, from woven baskets and 17th-century Colonial treaties to contemporary photographs and the work of Decontie & Brown.

Designers Jason Brown and Donna Decontie Brown of Bangor have been making Wabanaki-inspired jewelry for two decades and stepped into the fashion design world three years ago, doing shows in New England as well as Alaska and New Mexico.

“Our people always were very fashionable,” said Donna Decontie Brown, who is both Wabanaki and Algonquin First Nation. “They wore garments that would take months to make, which is what we do today.”

“Everything Donna and I do is about love and light and sharing positive energy and culture through creativity,” Jason Brown said.

Pointing to antique photographs of white men hanging in the Scottish Rite Reading Room, he said, “Maybe at one point in history everybody in our group wouldn’t have been allowed in this building. But, as a society, we are evolving and elevating.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

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