Penobscot Museum coordinator is a cultural resource

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INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - For the past 13 years, James Neptune has spent his days happily surrounded by the art, artifacts, objects and literature that narrate the history and customs of the Penobscot people.

Neptune is the coordinator of the Penobscot Nation Museum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich cultural and historic heritage of the Penobscot Indian Nation and the Wabanaki people.

And share he does. Neptune is a walking repository of knowledge. An hour or two spent with him as a guide at the museum, and a visitor comes away with more information about the Penobscot people and indigenous ways than can be imagined.

''When people come to this museum, if they're not educated on a whole lot of this stuff, I'm here ready to educate them,'' he told Indian Country Today.

''Some people come here with blinders on. They're ready to see only so much. Hopefully, by the time they've taken the tour, they've seen the videos and I've been able to talk to them, they'll go out with those blinders fallen off and their perspective widened and they'll be able to see not from such a single narrow direction, but from all around.''

The museum includes collections of items that span thousands of years of indigenous people's lives in the area that came to be known as Maine. There are prehistoric stone tools, examples of the renowned and beautiful Wabanaki baskets and the equally famous birch bark canoes, other utilitarian items made of birch bark, ceremonial objects, photographs, clothing, beadwork, paintings, and much more.

In the first room of the museum is a library of books Neptune has collected about the Wabanaki peoples - the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac Indians.

''There are a lot of things that people have donated and some things I've found in different places. This one's [by] Marc Lescarbeau. He explored the coast of Maine and did good descriptions of different things people did,'' he said, flipping the book through chapters about women's exercises, dressing in leather and what people ate.

''Here he talks about how they went to St. John, where there were 80 savages all naked except the middle parts. They had kettles full of food and each one had a dish made with the bark of a tree and a spoon as deep as one hand. So it's all early descriptions.''

How early?

''1609. I found this over in Washington state. Yes, that is early. Well, we were contacted early. We were the first contactees, sort of,'' Neptune laughed.

Other books are on baseball's first Indian player, Louis Sockalexis; Neptune's ancestor, John Neptune, a shaman or m'teoulino who led the tribe for decades and died in 1865; and medicinal plants.

Neptune reprints several books and pamphlets to sell to help defray the museum's costs. One is a reprint of a 1918 essay in the International Journal of American Linguistic by Frank Speck called ''Penobscot Transformer Tales,'' which feature Gluskabe, the Penobscots' culture hero. ''Use of Birch Bark in the Northeast'' documents the surprising number of things Northeast Woodlands peoples made from this indigenous tree.

The museum has a large collection of root clubs - decorated clubs made from the roots of trees that were used, in addition to warfare, on animals that had been wounded but not killed by arrows - ''to take them out of their misery,'' Neptune said.

Many of the root clubs have little faces on them.

''They are what you call spirit clubs. Whatever the person who was making it saw, he would put it onto the club. They were made to defend for their lands and defend for their people. After the wars and diseases that swept through the 1600s and early 1700s, we lost around 90 percent of our people at the time. So those clubs were kept in their families by the survivors.''

In the early 20th century, when the growing tourism industry gave rise to the Indian arts and crafts movement, tribal members reproduced root clubs and other items to sell to tourists.

In one corner of a room, Neptune has created a veteran's case with photos and items from the many Penobscot men who volunteered to serve in the American military.

''I wanted to show our people and the service they gave to a country that doesn't appreciate them.''

Neptune said that 90 percent of eligible Penobscot men served in World War II.

They joined in part to escape the dreadful poverty of Indian Island at that time, ''but also they had pride because we have a history of fighting all the way back to the Revolutionary War.''

He said he realized that Gluskabe had warned against fighting the white man's wars.

''But we had to learn how to adapt. That was our strength. We learned how to adapt no matter what they threw at us. We've been through hundreds of years of degradation and attempts at assimilation, but we still thrive as a people. They can't take us down. As long as that spirit lives within us, they'll never be able to take us down.''

For more information on the museum, or to contact Neptune, visit www.penobscot nation.org.