Part of a mural of notable Wabanaki people from the past and present is seen in reflected in a glass case inside the, “People of the First Light,” exhibit at the Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Chris Newell, the newly appointed executive director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, has been busy advocating for oppressed people lately. Two weeks ago, he testified before the school board in Guilford, Connecticut, about why the town should ditch its Indian nickname and mascot. The week before that, he wrote a forceful letter to the Boston Globe complaining how contemporary Wabanaki culture was portrayed in the newspaper and explaining why it was hurtful.

When the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country, Newell, a native of Indian Township and member of the Passamaquoddy nation, huddled with his museum staff to pen a statement of empathy, compassion and support for the protesters that began and ended with the Passamaquoddy imperative “Wolankeyawolotultiq” (wool-an-kay-ow-lod-ool-tiqw), or “take good care of each other.”

As a person of color and the first tribal member to direct the only museum in Maine that tells the history and contemporary stories of Wabanaki people, Newell couldn’t let such an important cultural and societal moment pass without the Abbe taking a stand.

“Museums are not neutral. If we sit back and say nothing, we take the side of complicity,” he said in an interview. “The endangerment of Black and brown bodies exists on a daily basis because of the way America is structured. Systematic racism exists. As Native people, we know this all too well.”

Chris Newell, the executive director and senior partner to Wabanaki Nations at the Abbe Museum, at the museum in downtown Bar Harbor. Newell, a citizen of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, returned to Maine for this leadership position at the museum. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Newell, 46, began his job March 1. Two weeks later, the coronavirus halted the museum’s exhibition plans and forced its high-profile Abbe Museum Indian Market into a digital format – a move that earned notice in The New York Times and introduced Newell to a wide audience across Maine and Indian Country. The museum has still not reopened, and Newell is looking at Aug. 1 as a possible date. That’s a full month later than most other museums in Maine, but Newell wants to be extra cautious.

Complications from the coronavirus aside, Newell, a longtime educator and cultural advocate, embraced the new and added duties that came with the job. With his hiring, the museum board expanded the director’s role to include the title of senior partner to Wabanaki Nations, which reflects the museum’s commitment to and advocacy for Wabanaki culture beyond museum walls. The Wabanaki Nations include Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, Maliseet and Abenaki.

‘SHIFT IN POWER’

With Black Lives Matter protests forcing overdue conversations about race and equity, Newell wants the Abbe to seize this unprecedented opportunity to exert itself as a cultural leader in Maine on the topic of inclusion, equity and other issues. “Black and Native communities are united in a lot of ways, and Native communities are standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” he said, noting that protesters in New Mexico have torn down statues of Spanish colonizers, just as protesters elsewhere have forcibly removed statues of Christopher Columbus, Confederate warriors and others perceived as oppressors.

Newell says Maine has done “a pretty good job” with its statues and memorials. “It’s not quite as hostile an environment when it comes to monuments like some places, like Connecticut,” he said.

He attributes the relatively conciliary tone to the work of the Maine-Wabanaki State Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the past decade, as well as tribal representation in state government. “It’s non-voting, but at least we have a voice,” he said. “We are always the constant. The people in government in the state of Maine change. Their learning curve goes up and down, left and right. But right now it’s one of the better times.”

That said, it’s still full of conflict. Prior to beginning his job as Abbe director, Newell submitted testimony to the Legislature endorsing full support of task force recommendations that would give Maine tribes more sovereignty under the original Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. Newell’s father, Wayne Newell, was among the negotiators of the original settlement. In his testimony, Chris Newell asked lawmakers to honor the wishes of task force members.

“Your statehood, your existence as Mainers, was once in the hand of Maine’s tribes and in good faith we chose to be good neighbors. The past 40 years have seen a massive erosion of that good faith. This is a problem created by the State of Maine,” he told lawmakers. “It’s up to the State of Maine to fix it. To put the burden of the heavy lifting on Maine’s tribes is simply an extension of the erasure and genocidal policies of Maine’s hard past. Let’s learn history not to exact guilt on one another, but to learn from it and do better.”

He called the appointment of a Wabanaki director “a shift in power” for the museum, and sees the job as part of the larger arc of his path in life – in this case, his pathway home. In all his work as a museum educator and tribal culture advocate, his mission has been to change the educational narratives of Native history and contemporary issues at all levels of schooling, in art and history museums and in all manner of public discourse. When he learned he was a finalist for the position, he asked himself: “Could this really happen to me? Could I really have a living wage, do what I want to do with my life and have an impact on teaching Wabanaki history and arts, as well as our contemporary existence?”

The Abbe, which was founded in 1926 and named after a wealthy summer resident who collected early Native American artifacts in Frenchman Bay, began an internal process of institutional decolonization five years ago. As part of that process, the museum began telling Wabanaki stories and culture from the tribal perspective, instead of from the perspective of Maine’s colonial settlers – and wealthy summer residents. Newell’s hiring culminates the process, said museum trustee Gabriel Frey, the award-winning Passamaquoddy basketmaker. “You can speak to what is in his resume, but beyond what’s on paper, having an indigenous director gives the museum so much credibility,” Frey said. “I feel like a lot of organizations check boxes. To me, having an indigenous director is walking the walk.”

A part of the “People of the First Light,” exhibit at the Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

JOURNEY TO ADVOCACY

Newell grew up in Indian Township, and came to the Abbe by way of Connecticut, where he lived and worked for the past 21 years. His wife and three kids are still in Connecticut and likely will remain there until his oldest son, who will be a senior in the fall, finishes high school. Meanwhile, he is renting in Ellsworth until the family moves to Maine.

He started on the path of education, advocacy and art when he left Maine in fall 1992 and enrolled at Dartmouth College, the Ivy League school in New Hampshire. Dartmouth had, and still has, a good reputation among Native students, but Newell found it to be racist and an uncomfortable environment. It was also a culture shock in the most general sense.

“As a freshman student, I was coming from Indian Township, Maine, on the eastern side of Maine in Washington County. It was a very rural and isolated part of the state in what already was a very rural state. My upbringing in that community was very different than the upbringing of the average Dartmouth College student. I had never lived in a place where trash companies picked up your trash or where mail was delivered to your door,” he said.

Newell quickly fell in with a strong and active Native student group, but he also quickly learned what he called Dartmouth’s “dark secrets” when it comes to its lack of sensitivity to Native people. He was shocked to learn the college’s unofficial mascot was an Indian, a relic from earlier days. The college made efforts to get rid of the mascot’s presence, but it lingered. At his first football game, he saw alumni and some of his peers wearing Dartmouth Indian clothing.

“I didn’t have an issue with Indian mascots until I saw the behavior at Dartmouth. I saw behavior I did not expect. I saw girls doing the wahoo chant, people shouting about scalping, and other people painted their faces,” he said. “I thought, ‘What is going on here? This is Dartmouth College.’ I had done a lot of work to get into the Ivy Leagues. I was accepted at MIT and Brown, and I earned my place there, but I realized I that I was out of place. I was hanging around with people who were going to be future representatives and senators and CEOs. I was watching their behavior and I realized, ‘This is what they think of my culture.’ ”

He was surprised, hurt and disappointed. Newell never went to another football game, and wasn’t long for Dartmouth either. He talked to his friends about his culture and background, and learned that many made assumptions about him. “I got asked constantly, ‘Oh you must have gotten in for free.’ Or, ‘You got in because you’re Native,’ ” he said.

Light-skinned with blue eyes, Newell didn’t fit many people’s views of what an Indian person should look like. “It’s still very ingrained – you must be dark-skinned with black hair and brown eyes,” Newell said. “I would get asked, ‘How much Indian are you?’ You have to constantly prove your existence, and it wears on you.”

Newell developed a chip on his shoulder, and began wondering if it was appropriate for him stay enrolled. He became depressed, and left the college, eventually earning his degree from the University of Connecticut a decade later. From that moment, he fully immersed himself in his culture and began the journey of an artist and advocate.

A THRIVING CULTURE

From New Hampshire, Newell moved to Connecticut, where he joined the Mystic River Singers, an intertribal drum group based out of Mashantucket, Connecticut, in the mid-’90s. Newell’s father was a singer, and Newell became a pretty good singer himself growing up Maine, and continued to sing on campus at Dartmouth. He joined the Mystic River Singers in 1995, just as the group experienced a boost in popularity when the singer Kenny Merrick Jr. joined. Merrick was an accomplished powwow singer, flute player, entertainer and educator, who toured with American Indian Dance Theater.

In 2014, Newell began working as an educator at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, Connecticut. A year later, he became education supervisor and found his calling. At a tribal museum, he realized he could educate people of all ages about issues that were important to him. “Connecticut has a small native population. It’s not uncommon for a 10-year-old to walk into the Pequot Museum having never met a Native person in their life. Adults might be the same. They have one view of Native lives, and it’s all past tense. They are so ingrained by the stereotypes of sports mascotry, Natives only exist in the past. Even with a Pequot educator leading a tour, it would always start with a question, ‘When Pequots were alive …’ ”

Newell’s job was to show them that Pequots were still alive – and how. In theory, by the time they left the museum, not only did visitors realize that Pequots were still an active and thriving culture, but those visitors were excited about a world and way of life they didn’t know existed. Newell loved the work, and became good at it. Two years ago, he co-founded the Akomawt Educational Initiative in Ledyard, Connecticut, a consultancy that was designed to help educators teach Native content better. “Teachers have basic questions – which term do I use? Native American? American Indian? Indian? Which one is right?” Newell said.

The answer? None of them.

“It’s not Native, it’s not Native American, it’s not Indigenous. Those terminologies, those generalizations, are European ideas singularizing entire cultures. It doesn’t matter which one you use, they’re all wrong. They’re all intellectually wrong because they do not accurately describe us, and that is a failure of the English language that we use those terms. In the Constitution, they used the word ‘Indian’, and ‘Indian’ is not going away. … What’s in vogue these days is ‘Native’ without ‘American.’ That is what it is, but we all self-identify by tribes.”

Before long, the Akomawt Educational Initiative was consulting with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Boston Public Library and other leading cultural institutions across the region, telling them what they were doing right and wrong relative to their interpretation of Indian art and culture. One example: At the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the BPL, an exhibition about America’s westward expansion described the process as “gradual.” Gradual to the expansionists, perhaps, but it was rapid to the people who lived on plains for 10,000 years or more and lost their lives to America’s expansion, Newell said. “We crossed out the word ‘gradual’ and replaced it with the word ‘rapid.’ ”

One of his colleagues at Akomawt, endawnis Spears, said Newell’s strength is his ability to explain the culture to people who are not familiar with it in a manner that is both friendly and non-judgmental. “With all of these issues that are at the forefront of American culture right now around race and history, it requires personalities and spirits like Chris Newell. He is willing to have those conversations with people in constructive ways. If it’s just about guilting people out or pointing fingers, Chris doesn’t engage,” she said. “It’s a perfect alignment of the stars that he is at the Abbe right now.”

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