Suzanne Greenlaw and Gabriel Frey were having a hard time finding books for their young children that told something of their heritage.

The Orono couple and their two children – ages 4 and 8 – are Native American, descendants of people who have lived for thousands of years in what is now Maine. More specifically, Greenlaw is Maliseet and Frey is Passamaquoddy. But when they began looking for children’s books featuring Native children or stories of Indigenous culture in Maine, they found the options weren’t as numerous as they hoped. So they decided to write one themselves.

“The First Blade of Sweetgrass,” which came out in August from Tilbury House Publishers, is about their daughter, Musqon, accompanying her grandmother as she gathers sweetgrass for basketmaking.

“We wanted to find books our children could see themselves in,” said Greenlaw, 41.

“The First Blade of Seagrass” is one of several books published this year by Native authors from Maine offering a range of views and genres, including folklore, history and social discourse. One released in early November – which is Native American Heritage Month – is “If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving” (Scholastic), an illustrated children’s book written by Chris Newell, former director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.

“The First Blade of Sweetgrass” by Suzanne Greenlaw and Gabriel Frey came out in August. She is Maliseet and he is Passamaquoddy and they wanted to write a book their children could see themselves in. Photo courtesy of Tilbury House Publishers

Also, this year, some Maine libraries are putting a more acute focus on books about Indigenous people and by Native authors from Maine, as more books in that category are coming out and more readers are expressing interest in the subjects. The Portland Public Library earlier this fall began compiling a list of books and other materials dealing with Native American history and perspectives in New England and Canada in order to suggest titles, including some recent ones, in time for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which was Oct. 11. The Fogler Library at the University of Maine launched a similar list last November, during Native American Heritage Month. Both lists have more than 70 items, including books, articles and other materials in each library’s collection.

“I think the interest in these areas, in the history of Native peoples and of places has definitely been on the uptick,” said Raminta Moore, arts and culture librarian at the Portland Public Library.

Moore said she thought some interest was probably spurred by  news stories over the last few years involving the treatment of Native Americans, including protests over a pipeline in Western states and recent revelations about the remains of Indigenous children uncovered at former “Indian” residential schools in Canada. In Maine, a law was passed in 2019 to replace the former Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Tribal nations in Maine are also currently working in support of legislation that would recognize their sovereignty.

Some of the recent books and lists compiled by librarians use the name Wabanaki, which is a collective term for the Native nations in what is now Maine. Specific tribal nations or communities in Maine today – each with their own government and schools – include Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy.

Here are some of the new and recent books by Indigenous authors from Maine, for people who would like to read about the history or culture of Native Americans in Maine from their perspective, along with some upcoming films on the subject and links of where to go for more information.

“Still They Remember Me” by Carol A. Dana, Margo Lukens and Conor M. Quinn, is a collection of Penobscot stories that came out in May.

PASSING DOWN THE STORIES

“Still They Remember Me: Penobscot Transformer Tales Volume 1” (University of Massachusetts Press) is a compilation of 13 Penobscot stories passed down through generations and written in both English and Penobscot by Carol A. Dana, Margo Lukens and Conor M. Quinn. Dana is Penobscot language master for the Penobscot Nation, Lukens is a professor of English at the University of Maine, and Quinn is an adjunct professor of linguistics at the University of Southern Maine.

The stories were passed down for generations to Newell Lyon, a Penobscot Nation citizen. He told the stories to anthropologist Frank Speck, who published them in 1918 under the title “Penobscot Transformer Tales.” Dana and her co-authors transcribed the stories into current Penobscot orthography and wrote a new English translation. The stories focus on a Penobscot cultural hero, Gluskabe, as he comes of age and learns about his tribe’s culture. One story is about Gluskabe encountering a grasshopper who is hoarding all the tobacco, used for praying by the community. In other stories, he “brings balance to nature” by straightening bends in rivers among other things.

Carol Dana, Penobscot language master for the Penobscot Nation.

Dana, 69, grew up mostly on Indian Island, near Old Town, hearing stories and the Penobscot language spoken. She and her co-authors would like to publish a second volume of Lyon’s stories, so that they can be passed down, along with the language.

“My hope is that young readers will read this and get interested in the language and in the stories,” said Dana. “If you want to get to know a people, get to know their stories.

“Kuhkomossonuk Akonutomuwinokot: Stories Our Grandmothers Told Us” (Resolute Bear Press) is a collection of Passamaquoddy stories and community history, edited by Wayne Newell, a longtime Passamaquoddy educator and storyteller. Newell, 79, grew up on Pleasant Point, near Eastport. When he was young, he knew people in the community who did not speak English. But as he grew older and ventured from further from home – including to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earned a master’s degree in education – he said he felt like he was part of an “invisible people.”

“There were so many people in Maine who didn’t even know we existed,” said Newell, who lives in Indian Township, near Princeton, and is the father of Chris Newell. “I’ve been working for a half a century or so in bilingual education, collecting and writing stories. I decided we better publish these so they will live on.”

“The Gatherings Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations” is a about a group of Native and non-native people who met for several years to share perspectives. Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto Press

One of Newell’s favorite stories in the book is about a beetle whose grandson doesn’t have enough food and asks for some. His grandfather lectures him about people who spend too much time on fun and not enough time on gathering food for winter. He gives him the food but tells him not to come back asking again.

“The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigeneous-Settler Relations” (University of Toronto Press) with Shirley N. Hager as lead writer is about a dozen or so people from Maine and Canada, some Indigenous and some not, who met regularly in the 1980s and ’90s to search for ways to “heal” their shared history.

The group met for weekend-long gatherings in various locations in Maine and New Brunswick, sitting in a traditional Wabanaki council circle, Hager said. Hager, who worked in family development planning for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and is chair of the Friends (Quaker) Committee on Tribal-State Relations in Maine, was the coordinator of the gatherings.

Hager said she and others wanted to learn about each other’s views and try to find commonalities. Around 2008, someone suggested to group members that they write about their experiences. As lead writer, Hager interviewed other members to gather their stories.

“I think for non-Natives it was about coming to terms with our own privilege and honoring Indigenous perspectives,” said Hager, who lives in Chesterville, near Farmington. “We talked of the negative effect of colonization, not only on Indigenous people but on all of us.”

“The First Blade of Sweetgrass” by husband and wife Suzanne Greenlaw and Gabriel Frey is a children’s book based in reality. The girl in the story, Musqon, is the couple’s 8-year-old daughter. Musqon’s grandmother is seen in the book taking her granddaughter to harvest sweetgrass for baskets. Greenlaw is a Ph.D candidate in forest resources at the University of Maine and has done research on sweetgrass.

Frey is a 12th generation Passamaquoddy black ash basketmaker who has earned competition ribbons at the famed Santa Fe Indian Market. So besides the story of a young girl learning about her culture, the book includes information on traditional basketmaking.

The book, published by Tilbury House Publishers of Thomaston, is illustrated in color by Maine artist Nancy Baker. She visited sweetgrass meadows on Mount Desert Island with Greenlaw and Frey for research and inspiration. At the end of the book, Musqon is excited to teach her younger sister Alamossit, 4, all about sweetgrass.

Raminta Moore, arts and culture librarian at Portland Public Library, with books that deal with Maine indigenous people and tribal history and issues. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

WHERE TO FIND MORE

“The People of the Dawnland” is the name of the Portland Public Library’s list of its resources and readings on “the Wabanaki Peoples of New England and Canada.” The list of more than 70 items is arranged so people can read a description of the book, see at which library branches it is available and place a hold on the book as well. A few of the books on the list include “The Visual Language of Wabanaki Art” (2014) by Jeanne Morningstar Kent, “Native Trailblazer: The Glory and Tragedy of Penobscot Runner Andrew Sockalexis” (2021) by Ed Rice, “Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England” (2014) and “Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change” (2018) by Sherri L. Mitchell.

“Native American Studies: Wabanaki Authors in Fogler Library” is the list compiled by UMaine’s Fogler Library, with input from several Maine professors who focus on Native American culture or literature. Some of the 70-plus items on the list include “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis” (2020); edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Keeble Wilkinson; “Hard Times at Passamaquoddy, 1921-1950: Tribal Life and Times in Maine and New Brunswick” (2003) by Donald Soctomah; “The Stone Canoe: Two Lost Mi’kmaq Texts” (2007) translated by Elizabeth Paul; and “Through These Eyes: Poetry of a Penobscot Woman” (2007) by Maulian Dana.

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