Nicholas N. Smith sits at his desk showing Native American artifacts. Photo contributed by Wanda Morris

Brunswick scholar and ethnographer Nicholas N. Smith, 95, passed away last week leaving behind the most extensive research on the Wabanaki tribe in existence.

Smith wrote over 60 articles and book chapters focused on the history and culture of the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes.

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Wabanaki Alliance, called Smith a “trailblazer.”

He said while many non-Indigenous people thought of Native Americans in a historical context, “building teepees and wearing buckskins,” Smith saw Natives as contemporaries and wanted to help preserve their history.

For over half a century, Smith researched tribes by living with them, engaging in their customs, documenting, sharing and advocating for better tribal legislation.

University of Maine Associate Professor Micah Pawling, Smith’s friend and former colleague, said in the 1950s and ’60s, Smith would help translate treaties for the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes, bringing more clarity to the documents. Pawling said Smith broke down barriers and built lasting friendships with tribal leaders through mutual trust and respect.


Pawling recalled a trip he took with Smith and Smith’s late wife Edyth to Indian Township just before the pandemic, where they reconnected with the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Pawling said it was typical to hug female elders and shake hands with male elders, but when the tribe saw Smith, he received a very different greeting. Pawling said the tribal elder that had known Smith since the 1950s, drew his friend close so their foreheads could touch — an ancient greeting in many cultures to honor the heart and soul of another human being.

“He didn’t treat people as subjects when he did his research. He treated them as humans and got a different layer of information from them, that most researchers would miss,” said Donald Soctomah, tribal historic preservation officer of the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Soctomah met Smith while Soctomah was serving in the Maine Legislature from 1998-2010.

“He showed up to a lot of public hearings to help the Passamaquoddy Tribe,” Soctomah said of Smith.

Smith was an active member of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick for 20 years.

“Nick was a fine man of faith whose passion for justice for our native siblings will be a lasting legacy,” wrote St. Paul’s Assistant Rector Katie Holicky in an email to her congregation.


“For me, he will always be remembered as a good friend,” Soctomah said. “A lot of times you have historians who go out and get information and it stays on a bookshelf. He shared history with the tribe.”

Not only did Smith live with local tribes, but he was invited to important native ceremonies and events — like when Queen Elizabeth II gifted a consecrated chalice to the Mohawk Tribe in Ontario. 

“I wanted to feel what their life was really like,” Smith told The Times Record in a 2007 interview.

Nicholas Neville Smith and Pat Paul at a 2012 birchbark canoe building workshop at Woodstock First Nation. Photo contributed by Wanda Morris

Soctomah said one of the most endearing memories he has of Smith happened during Smith’s first visit to the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the 1950s. Upon arriving, Smith gifted a child an orange — which was hard to come by in rural Maine in those days. To reaffirm Smith’s friendship with the tribe 70 years later, Soctomah arranged a reunion between Smith and the tribe, where the same child — now an elder of the tribe — gave Smith an orange in return.

A bibliographic sketch from the University of New Brunswick catalogs many of Smith’s key experiences as a researcher.

In 1963, Smith joined his friend Peter L. Paul from Meductic on a canoe trip down the St. John River. The two traveled to New Brunswick, Canada, Indian Island and Old Town, where they lived with local tribes to aid in their mission of celebrating and preserving Native history.


Working on Native American linguistics for many years together, the two men became close friends. Smith even named his daughter Wanda, after his colleague’s child, Pawling said.

A decade later in 1974, Smith experienced life with the Cree Indians hunting at Philip Voyageur’s Winter Bush Camp, a story he would later retell in his 2011 book “Three Hundred Years in Thirty: A Memoir of Transition with the Cree Indians of Lake Mistassini.”

Smith earned his bachelor’s in history from the University of Maine Orono in 1950 and went on to receive his master’s in library sciences in 1959 from Columbia University School of Library Service. After years of research and working as library director in Watertown, New York, he retired in 1983 and moved back to Maine to be closer to his daughter.

Never pausing on his research, in 2007, Smith was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Maine for his fieldwork and archival research.

“Mr. Smith is recognized as a leader in the development of the field of Native American Studies. His expertise has been instrumental to the efforts of several institutions, including the Huntington Free Library, the Newberry Library, Fogler Library and the Abbe Museum, as they acquire, preserve and interpret Wabanaki materials,” according to a degree citation from UMaine.

Smith was more than a historian; he was a friend, husband and father. Married to his wife Edyth for over 60 years, Wanda Morris said her parents met while her father was working as a Maine guide. She said the two bonded over a shared appreciation of birding and would later embark on many research journeys together.


Morris said long after her father retired, he spent hours researching at the Bowdoin College library, and if he couldn’t go, “he’d send me,” she said.

Over the past few years, Smith began distributing boxes of his filings and research to the necessary institutions for future generations to use.

“He still had lots of work he wanted to do and accomplish. Now it’s my job to make sure this research gets to the places it means most to,” Morris said.


Nicholas N. Smith lecturing at the University of Maine Orono in 2006. Photo contributed by Wanda Morris

Nicholas Neville Smith at age 88, sifting through his research files in 2015. Photo contributed by Wanda Morris

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