A large puppet will accompany Jennifer Pictou in sharing spirit stories as part of “Wabanki Stories.” Photo courtesy of Portland Ovations

The Wabanaki people of Maine have been sharing their stories, music and art for thousands of years but haven’t always had the opportunity to do so on a professional stage.

“If there have been stage performances, they are often from non-Natives and have catered to white audiences,” said Chris Newell, a Passamaquoddy tribal member and former director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. “That was the power structure. They had to perform to a certain expectation.”

A world premiere performance titled “Wabanaki Stories” that was commissioned by the local performing arts organization Portland Ovations hopes to reverse that trend by showcasing authentic and varied performances from some of Maine’s top Indigenous artists.

“I think it’s so important for these stories to be shared by contemporary living artists and not treated as folklore or myth,” said Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director of Portland Ovations. “These are all working artists who have committed practices. We wanted to find a way to create a platform.”

The Feb. 3 and 4 performances at Merrill Auditorium will feature music from Tania Morey of the Tobique tribe in New Brunswick just across the Aroostook County border; spirit stories and puppetry from Jennifer Pictou of the Mi’kmaq Nation; stories and native language from Passamaquoddy tribal member Dwayne Tomah; and a genre-defying music and visual performance by Penobscot Nation artist Jason Brown, who performs as Firefly the Hybrid.

Chris Newell, former director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, will serve as host. Photo courtesy of Portland Ovations

Newell, who worked with Ovations to curate the show, will serve as a host of sorts, using music and narration to transition between the other artists.


“I think the reality in America is that we’re often ignorant when it comes to Native people,” he said. “And that’s not American citizens’ fault, it’s more the system. We teach it as past and highlight art from artists who are long dead and gone.

“Portland Ovations really gave over the power of creation to us with this project, and also provided all of their expertise and tools to enhance the performances.”

Petrin said that when Ovations launched its commission program back in 2020 and committed funds to supporting five performances from local artists, staff knew it wanted one of them to highlight the state’s Indigenous community.

Now, she hopes “Wabanaki Stories” lives beyond just this performance.

“We don’t see this as a one and done,” she said. “We want to keep it alive going forward.”



Jason Brown, a Penobscot Nation tribal member, has been singing traditional music since he was young, although never publicly.

In the last few years, though, he started branching out, first in front of friends and acquaintances, then in Facebook Live performances.

Jason Brown performs as Firefly, blending the music of his ancestors with contemporary sounds. Photo courtesy of Portland Ovations

He now performs on stage as Firefly – blending the music of his ancestors with contemporary sounds.

“Each space, each room I perform in has a different energy,” he said. “It’s not to say that there aren’t nerves, but the nerves are excitement, in having that exchange between what I do and everyone else in the room.”

Brown grew up on Indian Island, tribal land just north of Bangor, but left Maine at 17 to live in the desert for more than a decade before returning home.

“It was time,” he said. “I missed it.”


Brown said he’s held different jobs, all of which centered on creativity in some way, but live performance is still new. He said the opportunity to participate in “Wabanaki Stories” is unique because each artist will bring something different.

“I see it as an opportunity to push myself a little and do something unexpected,” he said.

One of the reasons Brown has embraced performing is to counteract stereotypes that Native American culture should be relegated to museums. He said in the last few years, there has been a subtle shift in the arts world to be more inclusive of Indigenous forms.

“I feel like what is different and powerful now is that we’ve taken control,” he said. “We get to say how we want to present and move through the world.”

“What I’m doing is no different than what my ancestors did,” he continued. “We take the culture and energy for prior generations and put our own stamp on it and send it forward.”



Like Brown, Dwayne Tomah has been sharing the stories and songs of his people, the Passamaquoddys, nearly all his life.

He directs the museum at Pleasant Point, the tribal reservation in Washington County, but also performs at schools and other venues regularly.

For Tomah, it’s all about language.

Dwayne Tomah will reenact a series of Passamaquoddy ceremonies in “Wabanaki Stories.” Photo courtesy of Portland Ovations

“Stories and music, they connect us,” he said. “So, we’re always talking about the language and the ceremony.”

As part of his performance for “Wabanaki Stories,” Tomah will reenact a series of ceremonies specific to Passamaquoddys.

“There are always nerves, I think, but I’m confident, too,” he said. “I want to share this with the world. There is a lot of value in that.”


Tomah said he has noticed a greater acceptance from society about the “historical truth” of Indigenous people.

“It’s shameful to think about genocide,” he said. “But as we’ve tried to talk about these topics very respectfully but very truthfully, I’m hopeful that people start to understand Indigenous people and our connection to the land, and that’s where it starts for us. So, how can we build this relationship and show examples of humanity?”

Tomah said the best way to do that is through education, which is why he likes performing to younger audiences.

“If we get them, we can change the pendulum,” he said.


In addition to Tomah and Brown, “Wabanaki Stories” will feature songs by Tania Morey about the Wolastoq, the Indigenous name for the St. John River that forms a good part of Maine’s border with Canada.


Jennifer Pictou, an artist and historian with the Mi’kmaq Nation of Aroostook County, is among the performers in “Wabanaki Stories.” Photo by Heather Anderson

Rounding out the lineup will be Jennifer Pictou, an artist and historian with the Mi’kmaq Nation of Aroostook County who will share spirit stories accompanied by a large puppet.

Newell said it was a challenge to put together a cohesive show with such diverse performers.

“I think the important thing is to see a production that’s Wabanaki-led, to challenge what the media thinks a Native production should look like,” he said.

Portland Ovations, which brings a variety of national and local events to the city, mostly at Merrill Auditorium, began commissioning work in 2020 as a way to give performance artists a boost during the pandemic.

So, the organization has supported performances by Portland musician Samuel James, dancers Riley Watts and Heather Stewart and the production of a play written by the late activist Dee Clarke.

Petrin said each piece of work has been different, but each also has created rich partnerships within the greater arts community.


There also has been an effort to promote work from groups that have historically been marginalized or overlooked. She said she’s excited about the possibility of keeping “Wabanaki Stories” going in some capacity in the future.

“We can’t do it with every commission, but this is one where there are incredible opportunities that we hope to explore,” she said.

Newell said the upcoming performance could open doors for artists to perform at other venues down the road.

“I think for people to see these art forms as alive and dynamic and changing with the times, that helps us get past this bias about Indigenous culture,” he said. “We want to do something great. We want the audience to go home even more excited than when they arrived.”

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