A Visit to the Penobscot Indians

American Section

By: F.G.S.

Originally Published in 1911

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The biennial election of governor, lieutenant-governor, representative, council and other officers of the Penobscot tribe of Indians took place last fall, and the inaugural ceremonies followed on January first. At the invitation of the Indian officials I was present on this occasion, combining the opportunity of witnessing the ceremonies with regular field work in connection with my study of Penobscot ethnology, which has occupied my attention at such times as I could make convenient for several years.

On the afternoon of the first of Jan. nary the Indians assembled in their dance hall, the old and the new officials seated on a platform at the head of the hall. while the spectators filled the rest of the interior. A short. introductory speech by one of the leading men opened the meeting. This and all of the other speeches were in the Penobscot language. A silver medal of peace, presented by President Andrew Jackson to the Indian chiefs of various tribes in 1827, which has since been handed down among the Penobscots as a badge of office, was transferred with an appropriate speech from the ex-governor to the neck of the governor-elect, where it hung suspended from a ribbon. Speeches relative to tribal matters were made by all the new officers and the meeting was adjourned after a few words and benediction by the priest. In the evening the dancing began; the singing being accompanied by a horn rattle held in the band of the leader. Some of the men wore ornamented beadwork collars and other parts of Indian costume, a number of women wearing the entire native dress.

Fig. 16.—Big Thunder, late chief of the Penobscot Indians. Aged 90.
Image Number: 13024

A visiting Sioux Indian, whose. costume contrasted greatly with that of the Penobscots, added a touch of spirit to the dances which he readily learned, though they were different from the dances he knew. Most of the Penobscot round dances are performed by groups of four to eight, divided evenly and facing each other. These groups move around the dance hall from right to left. The leader, with several men by his side, comes first. He does the rattling and the main part of the singing while the rest of the dancers join in every few syllables with the response. This, with the rattling and regular stamping, makes up the dance. At certain intervals indicated by the leader the dancers reverse their positions. The women who go before the men hold their bodies rather quietly, merely marching sedately two by two or in single file.

Another dance, a very popular one, is the Winding Dance, also known commonly as the Snake Dance, because the line of dancers winds about like the movement of a snake. The leader going first, the dancers link arms and start trotting in single file and in time with the song, turning this way and that until the line is swaying and winding. With much mirth and enjoyment the leaders try to snap off those at the end of the line. These save themselves by grabbing the bystanders and dragging them in. This performance is uproarious, and is the particular favorite of the young. It has a special song, punctuated frequently with plaintive cries and whoops.

Fig. 17.—Piel Nicolar, Governor of the Penobscots.

The Micmac Dance is generally left until the last, on the occasion of the recent election dances it was performed several times. The floor was cleared save fox the spectators around the walls and a one man orchestra stooping at the head of the hall beat the rattle on the floor and sang the Micmac. Dance song, of an entirely different style from the others. The dancers, always met, then run into the open space, stooping low and whooping, each man dancing with a kind of alternating hopping step hard to describe, and equally hard to imitate. Sometimes two will face each other with heads low and turning face to face as though opposing each other. Be midnight, after a few dances introduced from the white people, the dancing came to an end. The estimable and highly respected man in whose honor this ceremony was held is Piel Nicolar, now governor of the Penobscots.

Fig. 18.—Wampum necklace. Heye Collection.
Image Number: 14295

Among other matters, information was volunteered by Governor Nicolar concerning a woven wampum necklace which has for some time been in the Heye collection, in this Museum. According to the identification afforded by Governor Nicolar, the neck lace (Fig. 18) represents the treaty of peace between eight or nine tribes, represented by nine sections, divided by double white bars, each enclosing a small white cross. Eight of the tribes indicated by the crosses are the Penobscots, Passamaquoddies, Malisits, Micmacs, Iroquois (Mohawks), Chippewa (eastern), Flatheads (probably the Algonkins or Tete de Boules on the upper St. Maurice River), and Ottawas. This leaves out of account the Abenakis of St. Francis, who being well known to the Penobscots, might have been the ninth tribe represented by the crosses.

Fig. 19.—Carved Penobscot cradle-board. Heye Collection.
Image Number: 14279

I hope, however, to secure at a subsequent visit a more critical explanation of the wampum with the help of the old men and a photograph. The date of this compact was not given, but the necklace is Said to have been kept at Oldtown, the Penobscot village, as a record. This, indeed, may he one of the records made to commemorate the meetings which these northeastern tribes held every seven years in the Mohawk country until as late as 1840.

Fig. 20.—Penobscot Indian girl with bow and arrow.

Another article in the Heye collection which came from the Penobscots from the hands of a commercial collector is the finely carved cradle-board (Fig. 19). I learned the following story of this specimen from the Indians, the object having belonged to an old woman named Sisul, the oldest living member of the tribe, who is the source of the following legend.

“That cradle-board never was used by the maker because a very strange thing happened. This is the story, and it is a true one of a long time ago. A man and his wife had lived for many years without children. At last they were made glad, for a child was to be born to them. The husband was so proud that lie set to work to make a cradle-board as was the custom. But the cradle he made was to be finer than any hitherto seen. For months he labored, stained it with alder bark and carved it, front, back and sides. Nothing like it had been seen. Meanwhile he did nothing but think of his child that was to come, and so the proudest man in the village waited for his offspring. But his pride had overreached itself and he had to be punished. No child was born to him, but in its place a snake was found. This is how it happened and that cradle-board was never to be used by its maker.”


F. G. S.

Cite This Article

F.G.S.,. "A Visit to the Penobscot Indians." The Museum Journal II, no. 1 (March, 1911): 21-26. Accessed July 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/129/

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