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The Indian Encampment: Behind the Scenes

All the cooking at the Indian encampment is done out-of-doors, just in the rear of the tents, on rusty cook-stoves set up on a few boards. -Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 8/23/1884

Life behind Wabanaki sale tents was at least as lively as it was in front of and within them especially for those Wabanakis who brought their families. Activities included: cooking, tending children, washing and mending clothes, skinning and stretching hides, braiding sweetgrass, preparing ash strips, weaving baskets and, of course, socializing and playing games.

In cast-iron pots blackened by years of cooking on smoky open fires, muskrat stews simmered, fish sizzled in seal oil, and Indian frybread bubbled up in hot lard. Sometimes, the rank, greasy smell of roasted porpoise also wafted through the camp either because someone was roasting a chunk of porpoise for dinner or boiling its fine oil to sell to watchmakers and lighthouse keepers. Wabanakis harvested their own fish and sea mammals, but lard and flour usually came from the annual distribution of annuity goods which the state provided as part of its ongoing obligation to the tribes for land obtained from them in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Fishing weir, Bar Harbor, 1903
Fishing weir, Bar Harbor, 1903
Jesup Memorial Library

Some of the pots that boiled behind Wabanaki shacks and tents were filled with dyes used for basketmaking. After dipping each slender strip of ash wood into the hot, bright brew, women draped the long strands over lines to dry in the island breeze, creating colorful curtains of blue, red, and green.

Wabanakis often camped near a narrow stretch of shallow coastal water where they built a weir, or sihtomuhkakon. At low tide, the wooden fence hinders the passage of fish, rendering them easy to spear or catch. Wabanakis did not build this weir due to fishing restrictions imposed upon them, but surely their ancestors had one in this location.

Beyond simple wooden chairs and stools, there was little furniture at the encampment. Wabanaki made do with wooden crates and boxes using them as seats, tables, and shelves for storing foodstuffs, cooking utensils, basketmaking tools, and other necessities. Often, Wabanakis used chair backs as frames for wrapping long lengths of sweetgrass braided for basketry.

Most Wabanakis were Catholic. While in Bar Harbor, some went daily or weekly to Mass at St. Sylvia’s Church on Kebo Street. As reported in the Mount Desert Herald in 1882, Indians from the encampment helped finance the church’s construction “almost without exception, appearing to consider it a privilege to contribute from their scanty means.” For Mass, Wabanaki women usually dressed in their finest. As one local stated, alongside the island girls, an Indian woman going to church “looked like a bird-of-paradise in a barn-yard.” From Bar Harbor Days, by Mrs. Burton Harrison, 1887.

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