Connecting the Past and the Present

Dr. Bonnie Newsom in the field with Isaac St. John, Rebecca Cole-Will, and other students at Isle au Haut. (Photo by Catherin Schmitt/Schoodic Institute)


On a small point of land on the shore of the Schoodic Peninsula, rocky shore gives way to softer sediment.

Waves lap at the foot of small bluffs, moving sand and broken shell onto a beach strewn with dried seaweed and frayed fishing rope.

A few apple trees hint at past human presence, but there is deeper history here: along the edge, piles of clam shells mark a space where, between one and two thousand years ago, ancestors of the Wabanaki people came together to harvest and share food, to interact and relate, to live.

At least 24 Indigenous archaeological sites have been documented within the boundaries of what is now Acadia National Park; only few have been studied.

In 1978, a team of archaeologists from the University of Maine—including a student named Rebecca Cole-Will—excavated the Schoodic site. They catalogued and numbered the artifacts, carefully packed them into blue-gray cardboard boxes, and put them on a shelf in park archives.

And there they sat for 40 years until 2020, when a different team of archaeologists from the University of Maine pulled the boxes off the shelf. Dr. Bonnie Newsom, assistant professor with the University of Maine’s Anthropology Department and Climate Change Institute, along with graduate students Natalie Dana Lolar and Isaac St. John, carefully removed stone pieces, bone splinters, and baked clay fragments from their special archival plastic bags and spread them out on a table. They paused for a moment.

Newsom, Lolar, and St. John are trained archaeologists and members of different Wabanaki tribes. They were the first Wabanaki people to see the objects since those who created them more than a thousand years ago.

Where previous archaeologists believed “the ethnographic record in Maine is poorly adapted to providing useful clues for past human behavior,” Newsom, Lolar, and St. John bring Indigenous meaning and purpose to their science.

“Our work is designed to connect the past to the present by approaching our material analyses from a place of Indigeneity, placing our deep time relationships at the center of our inquiry,” said Newsom.

A sense of urgency also underlies the work. Rising seas and intensifying storms have already eroded away many
archaeological sites in Acadia.

“These sites have value for strengthening our culture,” said Newsom. “Climate change is adding another dimension to our cultural loss.”

The team is working closely with the National Park Service to interpret and preserve the collections. The National Park Service must consult with federally recognized Indian Tribes on a government-to-government basis.

“However, the work we are doing here at Acadia, I hope, extends the meaning of consultation by recognizing the inherent right of descendant communities to have access to, and intellectual control of, knowledge about heritage cultural resources and how they are managed,” said Rebecca Cole-Will, who is now the Chief of Resource Management at Acadia National Park.

As Newsom, Lolar, and St. John draft plans to relate their findings to their communities, they are, at the same time, transforming stewardship of land and water in Acadia.

Editor’s Note: This article was excerpted from the Acadia National Park website. Read full article here: Indigenizing Archaeology at Acadia National Park

CATHERINE SCHMITT is the Science Communications Specialist at Schoodic Institute.

An Interview with Dr. Bonnie Newsom

Centering Wabanaki Knowledge in Archeological Practice

Read More