FREEPORT – George Neptune is a 24-year-old Dartmouth College graduate who works as the museum educator for the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. Neptune is a native of Indian Township and a member of the Wabanaki tribe. In a partnership with the Freeport Historical Society, Neptune will lead a program called “Native American Medicine Walk” on Sunday at the Pettengill Farm in Freeport.
The medicine walk is the first of four programs that tie in to the historical society’s exhibit, “To Comfort, Heal, and Cure,” which features items relating to local and regional health care. The additional three programs are “Plants to Pharmaceuticals,” with Dr. Tom Feagin, on Sept.22; “Civil War Medicine, Myths, and Minie Balls,” with Carolyn E. Lawson on Oct. 13; and “Phrenology: Quackery or the Science of the Mind?” with Tom Kelleher on Nov. 3.
Neptune is the grandson of Molly Neptune Parker, a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow award winner, and he’s considered a rising young star of Maine Indian basketry. Neptune recently spoke with the Tri-Town Weekly about the history of the Wabanaki people, his plans for the Freeport walk and why wintergreen may be better than an aspirin for a headache.
Q: Describe your position at the Abbe Museum. What do you do as the museum educator?
A: I handle the schools or tour groups who come to the museum. I also travel to various schools throughout the state and give educational programs there. I am also in charge of other educational programs at the Abbe, whether they be special night programs or in the afternoon. I’m also in charge of hiring for demonstrations on traditional crafts, music or storytelling.
Q: What is the mission of the Abbe Museum?
A: The mission of the Abbe Museum is to inspire new learning about the Wabanakis with every visit. The museum originally opened in 1928 and is currently the only remaining trailside museum in a national park (Acadia). It was originally named the Robert Abbe Museum, and was created to display his archeological collection after he passed away. Eventually, the collection started to include not just ancient artifacts, but modern collections, too. Once the mission of the Abbe changed and the collection expanded, we moved to our downtown location in Bar Harbor.
Q: What types of things can be found at the Abbe?
A: Right now we have six different exhibits on display. In particular, we have a canoe build happening through our artist-in-residency program. The artist is building a 14-foot birch bark canoe that will become part of our collection. It’s particularly historical because it’s the first birch bark canoe being built on Mount Desert Island in over 100 years. It’s also being built in the traditional manner. We also have our exhibit called “Wabanaki Guides” that looks at the history of guides from the time of European settlers to today.
Q: How far back in history do the Wabanaki trace their people?
A: It’s almost 12,000 years ago.
Q: What will you be doing on your medicine walk for the Freeport Historical Society?
A: When I was in culture classes at the school on the reservation, we would often go on nature walks throughout the woods with a tribal member who would show us various medicinal plants. They would sometimes teach us how to prepare them. It was always something I was very interested in as a kid, so much so that I took it upon myself to learn more. So the inspiration came from my childhood school programs. In Freeport, I will be leading the walk and hopefully finding and identifying certain plants. Depending on what we find, I may make an herbal tea on the spot. It’s also a nature walk with stopping and discussion.
Q: What can people expect to find on the walk?
A: One thing that has saved many lives is pine needle tea made from the needles of a white pine tree. The needles are incredibly rich in vitamin c and it was how Wabanaki people protected themselves against scurvy throughout the winter because they did not have access to fresh fruits or vegetables. It was also used to help nurse back to health the French settlers in Maine. Pine needle tea was definitely a staple for the Wabanaki people. Another tea that served a similar purpose was made from cedar and wintergreen. The wintergreen acts as a natural pain reliever and anti-inflammatory; it’s very good for headaches and pain throughout the body. Plus, it tastes good. Another medicine still widely used is sweet flag, which is boiled into a tea and used for cold and flu symptoms.
Q: In regards to history, is there a strong oral tradition for the Wabanaki people?
A: There is a very strong oral tradition. We try and make sure that Wabanaki people have a voice in every single exhibit. It’s a combination of oral history, written history, and also first-hand accounts which makes for a unique style at a museum.
Q: How many members of the Wabanaki exist?
A: There are about 10,000 Wabanaki people spread out through 4 different tribes; Penobscot, Passamaquoddy. Micmac and Maliseet. Native American populations in general have declined 90 percent from their peak.
Q: What does the word Wabanaki mean?
A: The translation is, “land where the sun rises.”
Q: What are a few challenges facing the Wabanaki people?
A: I would say the biggest challenge is the struggle for sovereignty and maintaining treaty rights and enforcing treaty rights when they have been violated.
A CLOSER LOOK
The Freeport Historical Society will present a program, “Native American Medicine Walk,” with George Neptune, on Sunday, Sept. 8, at 1:30 p.m., at Pettengill Farm, Pettengill Road, Freeport. Tickets are $7. For more information contact the Freeport Historical Society at 865-3170.