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Maine confronts a genocide that remains overlooked

The Wabanaki people hope their history and culture find more of a presence in the state's classrooms, as a 2001 law intended.
Credit: Courtesy of Upstander Project.
Penobscot tribal member Dawn Neptune Adams hugs her son, Kaden Adams, after reading the Phips Bounty Proclamation in the Council Chamber of Boston's Old State House during the filming of Bounty.

Dawn Neptune Adams dreams of being hunted.

For much of her life, the nightmare remained the same: Adams runs in the woods, chased by unseen captors.

“It is intergenerational trauma,” Adams explained, “from my ancestors being hunted and tortured.”

Adams is a member of the Penobscot Nation and the bounty that was placed on her Indigenous ancestors more than 250 years ago still torments her sleep and her waking hours.

In November 1755, Lt. Governor Spencer Phips of Massachusetts Bay Colony offered rewards for hunting, killing and scalping Penobscot men, women and children living in what is now known as New England.  

The brutal murders of her people, Adams said, runs through her blood and the blood of many other tribal members. The trauma of one generation, she said, is passed onto the next.

“The sickness that is handed down from generation to generation,” Adams said, “is a ripple effect from genocide.”

Though Phips’ order to exterminate Penobscot people wrought much suffering, it also sparked another ripple effect. One that gives Adams hope.

In recent years, Maine churches, communities and educators have sought the truth about bounties issued on the state’s Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’Kmaq tribes — collectively known as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland.”

“Many people,” Adams explained, “are digging into history and unlearning what they were taught, and relearning the truths.”

But, Adams added, there is still much to reconcile.

While Maine has supported the Wabanaki tribes by banning tribal mascots in school districts and replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, it still fails to teach Wabanaki history and culture in classrooms despite a 2001 law mandating that school districts do so.

A report released on Indigenous Peoples Day from the Wabanaki Alliance and several of its supporters criticized the Department of Education for not enforcing the 21-year-old law that required schools to teach Wabanaki studies. 

"To see the law falter and not have the right support is disheartening,” said Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana.

Though some school districts like Portland, Bangor and Lewiston have integrated Wabanaki history into their classrooms, many children are not taught about the state’s Indigenous people, who first inhabited Maine. Few, Dana said, know about the colonial government’s attempts to exterminate the Wabanaki and drive them from their native land. The ignorance continues into the present, Dana added. A surprising number of Mainers are unaware that roughly 8,000 Wabanaki people live in the state.

“The invisibility of Indigenous people right here in our homeland,” Dana said, “is one of the most shameful things about our American society.” 

Credit: Courtesy of Upstander Project.
Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana and her daughter Layla Bear express their emotions after reading the Phips Bounty Proclamation during the filming of Bounty.

Dana grew up on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Penobscot County. In her seventh-grade native studies class, she learned about the British colonial government bounties that offered rewards for the scalps of Penobscot tribal members — including men, women and children.

“We learned of the terrible things that happened, that there was a genocide right here and our ancestors were targets,” Dana said.

Along with earning money for the scalps, colonial settlers received hundreds of acres of land, Dana said. Several towns and cities in Maine, like Lovell and Westbrook, were named after people who profited from or commanded scalping expeditions. (Colonel Thomas Westbrook and Militia Captain John Lovewell, according to Massachusetts and Maine state archives, were both known bounty hunters.)

Dana believed the history lessons she learned about her people also were taught in other non-native schools. But when she attended high school in Bangor, her classmates, she recalled, were unaware of the bounties and the attempts to exterminate Maine’s Wabanaki tribes.

“I had assumed everyone learned about this,” she said, “but my classmates had no knowledge. Some didn’t even know there were tribes in Maine.”

To understand Wabanaki culture, Dana said, people must understand its past — from the colonial government’s extermination attempt, to the state’s removal of Indigenous children from their homes, to the ongoing fight for sovereignty and attaining the same rights as the country’s other 570 federally recognized tribes. 

Currently the Wabanaki are bound by state laws under the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. The proposed ‘sovereignty bill’ would return privileges and power to the Wabanaki, allowing them to regulate what happens on tribal lands, including fishing, hunting, criminal offenses and collecting taxes.

In the hopes of educating others about their history, Dana and Adams created “Bounty,” a compelling film about the Phips Proclamation. They co-directed the documentary with Adam Mazo, co-founder of the Upstander Project, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to researching and telling stories that have been ignored in traditional historical accounts.

The 1755 death warrant was just one of the 79 bounties issued by colonial authorities in what is now known as New England, according to Dr. Mishy Lesser, learning director and co-founder of Upstander Project.

Over the past 10 years, Lesser and her colleagues have reviewed thousands of pages of documents from the state archives in several New England states, including Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The Phips Proclamation and the bounties that followed, Lesser said, were “an organization of hatred and terror.”

“What was different about it during this period of history is that there had not been in the past a monetization of scalping,” Lesser added. “The government and also private individuals were financing what I think of as a very complex campaign based on dehumanization of Wabanaki people.”

Credit: Courtesy of Upstander Project
The Council Chamber of Boston’s Old State House where the Phips Bounty Proclamation was signed November 3, 1755. Several other scalp-bounty proclamations were signed in this room.

Phips declared the Penobscot people “enemies, rebels and traitors” to King George II. In the original handwritten document, Phips called on all “his Majesty’s Subjects of this Province to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing, and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” 

The colonial government rewarded bounty hunters 40 pounds for scalps of dead Penobscot males 12 and older — the equivalent of $12,000 in today’s dollars; 25 pounds for scalps of females older than 12, and 20 pounds for scalps of children 11 and younger.

According to the Upstander Project, thousands of Wabanaki children, women and men were killed, scalped, imprisoned, and at least £9,000 in bounty rewards were paid by the colonial government from 1675 to 1760. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land also were granted to people who participated in the death warrants and wars against the Wabanaki.

In the Bounty film released in 2021, Dana, Adams and Penobscot tribal member Tim Shay and their children sat in Boston’s old State House in the room where Phips signed the proclamation. In solemn voices, they read the words written by Phips more than two centuries ago.

Dana’s 9-year-old daughter Layla Bear read the document, perplexed at the language and the idea that a young girl like herself could be killed and scalped.

“I’d be sold?” she asked her mother.

“Yep,” replied Dana. “They had trading posts where people would bring bags of these scalps, or they would bring bodies of Penobscot people, and they would tally them up just like if they were animal skins, and they would get money for them.”

Dana paused and asked her two daughters gathered by her side, “Does it make you feel anything? Actually being here?”

“Makes me realize how resilient our people are,” said Dana’s daughter, 12-year-old Carmella Bear, “and how we’re still here.”

A copy of the proclamation is symbolically burned at the end of Bounty to show the Penobscot tribe’s revulsion over the 1755 death warrant, and to honor the tribe’s resistance and resilience in surviving.

Credit: The Maine Monitor
A copy of the Phips Bounty Proclamation was symbolically burned during the filming of Bounty to express the revulsion Penobscot tribal members felt over the 1755 death warrant and to honor the tribe’s resistance and resilience in surviving.

A copy of the Phips Bounty Proclamation was symbolically burned during the filming of Bounty to express the revulsion Penobscot tribal members felt over the 1755 death warrant and to honor the tribe’s resistance and resilience in surviving.

Bounty will “teach children some hard truths,” said Adams in the film’s introductory message. “What you’re about to see is difficult to watch and to understand. We don’t want you to feel guilty about the atrocities committed by your ancestors, but we want you to know about it.”

Less than nine minutes long, Bounty, Dana said, can easily be shown in the classroom.

“It’s quick and easily understood,” Dana said. “And because there are children in it, it makes it more relative to other young people.”

Along with offering the Bounty film free to classrooms, the Upstander Project developed 200 pages of curriculum that can be shared with students. Educators also can attend the Upstander Academy, a six-week program that originated in 2016, and focuses on Native American genocide and the bounties issued on Indigenous people.

Nadine Bravo, a University of Southern Maine graduate student studying how to teach English as a second language and the effects of intergenerational trauma on literacy, attended the academy last summer.

Credit: Barbara Walsh
University of Southern Maine student Nadine Bravo sits among a collection of books and materials about Native American genocide and scalping bounties.

She and others in the program listened to Native Americans share their history. They role-played Indigenous people removed from their native land by colonists and reviewed documents about the government-sanctioned bounties.

Before receiving payment, bounty hunters were required to provide journals citing where the murders occurred and how many were killed.

Bravo read the scalping journals of men who hunted Maine’s Wabanaki people. She photographed the pages as proof that she may one day share with her students.

“It talks about the 11th day of May, said James did kill an Indian enemy,” Bravo said, quoting the journal. “Upon oath killed. And after he killed, he scalped them.”

The journal noted that the man received $300 pounds for the scalps he presented, Bravo said.

“It is gruesome to read,” said Bravo, “but it is living proof of this genocide. It’s something that needs to be utilized in the classroom. If people are in disbelief, then this is what they should read.”

Bravo’s fellow students in her graduate program were shocked, she said, when Bravo shared what she learned at the academy.

“It’s so essential to talk about the true history,” Bravo said, “and stop the denial. Some people argue there was no genocide, but there is clear evidence.”

Credit: Barbara Walsh
Before receiving payment, bounty hunters were required to provide journals citing where the murders occurred and how many were killed. While she attended the Upstander Academy, Nadine Bravo read the scalping journals of colonial settlers who hunted Maine’s Wabanaki people. “It is gruesome to read,” said Bravo. “But it is living proof of this genocide.”

While attending the Upstander Academy, Bravo recounted her history lessons as a young girl growing up in Germany. In the fifth grade, she and her classmates toured Auschwitz, one of the Nazi’s largest death camps. In the 10th grade, they toured the Buchenwald camp.

“My history lessons in Germany were going to concentration camps and standing in front of the incinerators, and knowing where Jews were exterminated,” Bravo said. “This is a visceral memory I will never forget.”

Like her German classmates, Maine children, Bravo said, should not be protected from their past. 

A 44-year-old mother, Bravo has seen how little her own daughter, a Gorham student, has learned about the first people to inhabit Maine.

“Wabanaki history was supposed to be taught since 2001, but my daughter did one unit in seventh grade, and they didn’t go into detail,” Bravo said. “There was an attempt to teach some history, but it was very superficial.”

Like Bravo, Caitrin Monahan attended the Upstander Academy last summer. Monahan is a special education teacher at Rowe Elementary School in Portland. She teaches grades 3-5 in the Breathe program, working with students who have mental and behavioral health-related disabilities. 

Monahan is also a member of the Portland School District’s Wabanaki Studies Team, a group of tribal advisors, students, parents and community partners that has worked together since 2017 to create curriculum about Maine’s four federally recognized tribes.

Rowe Elementary School special education teacher Caitrin Monahan sits among the posters her students created while studying Maine’s Wabanaki tribes. The art, Monahan said, was made to “honor, recognize and support the original and current indigenous caretakers of this land we call home.” Photo by Barbara Walsh.

While Portland teachers have begun incorporating some lessons into their classrooms about Maine’s Native Americans, the goal is to include Wabanaki studies in a variety of subjects, like history, economics and ecology.

Credit: Barbara Walsh/ The Maine Monitor
Rowe Elementary School special education teacher Caitrin Monahan sits among the posters her students created while studying Maine’s Wabanaki tribes. The art, Monahan said, was made to “honor, recognize and support the original and current indigenous caretakers of this land we call home.”

Over the next few years, Monahan hopes to use some of the material and films from the Upstander Project in her classroom. People may argue that children are too young to learn about bounties, scalping and genocide, Monahan said, but she believes that “the truth” can be taught with sensitivity.

“Like any other story,” Monahan added, “there are going to be parts that are sad and heartbreaking.”

Learning about the Phips Proclamation and the other 69 scalping bounties issued on Native Americans in Maine and other New England states, Monahan said, also helps children and parents understand why the blood orange colored “scalping towels” once used to cheer Skowhegan school teams were offensive to the Wabanaki. 

“It’s disturbing to think about Skowhegan and its scalp towels with young children waving them and chanting ‘Scalp them! Scalp them!’, at football games,” Monahan said. “But when you teach children about this history, it allows them and their families to say, ‘This isn’t OK.’”

After years of controversy, the Skowhegan school district dropped its “Indian” nickname in 2019 and replaced it with “River Hawks.” The district was the last in the state to use a Native American mascot after legislators passed a 2019 law banning use of Indigenous names, mascots and imagery in all state public schools. 

As Gov. Janet Mills signed the law making Maine one of the first states in the country to prohibit Native American mascots, she explained, “While Indian mascots were often originally chosen to recognize and honor a school’s unique connection to Native American communities in Maine, we have heard clearly and unequivocally from Maine tribes that they are a source of pain and anguish.”  

Teaching Wabanaki history in Maine classrooms can help eradicate some stereotypes about Indigenous people, Monahan said. The lessons, she added, would also validate the culture and contributions of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes.

Although many of the Indigenous people in Maine live in tribal communities among the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaq Nations, many Wabanaki people, according to the recent Wabanaki Alliance report, live off reservation and send their children to public schools.  

“Wabanaki children attending any school in Maine should be able to see themselves and their heritage accurately and sensitively reflected in the curriculum,” the report noted. 

Many Indigenous students, Monahan said, feel invisible and isolated in the classroom. Few of their peers know or understand their culture.  

“For native and Wabanaki students,” Monahan said, “my hope is that they feel seen, respected and cared for.”

Reach Barbara A. Walsh by email: barbara@themainemonitor.org

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.

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