‘Sky canoe’: new perspective on the Penobscot River

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – At the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, people gathered themselves into the shape of a grizzly bear to honor the sacredness of their land and send a message to the government to protect it.

At the Jicarilla Apache Tribal Schools in New Mexico, students portrayed individual beads in a traditional morning star design.

At the Honu o ka Lani Charter School in Hawaii, they formed the image of an endangered sea turtle and celebrated afterwards during the blessing of a downpour.

And on Oct. 6 at the Indian Island Elementary School, more than 150 students, teachers and community members in blue T-shirts and jeans teamed up to represent the shifting colors of the Penobscot River beneath a gigantic 104-foot-long image of a Penobscot paddler in a traditional birch bark canoe.

As with the Blackfeet bear, the Apache morning star, the Hawaiian turtle and a half-dozen other “living paintings” created at Indian reservations by conceptual artist Daniel Dancer, the image of the Penobscot paddler could not be discerned at ground level. It could only be seen and enjoyed from way above the soccer field that acted as his massive canvas for the “painting.”

So, he photographed the huge design from a bird’s-eye view: atop a huge crane donated by the city of Old Town’s fire department.

The project was called “Sky Canoe.”

“The whole idea of awakening our ‘sky sight’ is a really big part of this art form,” he said. “That’s a term I came up with to describe the importance of training our imagination to rise above our problems and look down on them from up high, and then you can see how everything is connected and you can better solve those problems. I think that’s where the highest creativity lives – in the big picture.”

Dancer is the founder of Art for the Sky (www.artforthesky.com), a traveling art education, artist-in-residence program in which he uses the people and natural materials found in the community to create large “living paintings.” The created images are symbols of nature or items of cultural importance in the particular community. Each image is massive and can only be viewed from the sky; and because they are temporary installations, he memorializes each project in photographs and videos that can be viewed in the “sky gallery” on his Web site.

“I do lots of projects on different Indian reservations – this is the ninth or 10th one – so it always comes down to an animal or symbol of something that’s especially important to that tribe; and the birch bark canoe is very symbolic of the Penobscot people. They invented the canoe. So, doing a traditional birch bark canoe made a lot of sense. The school wasn’t big enough to make the whole canoe out of people, so the people became the water.”

In addition to the people, Dancer used soil, shredded bark, sawdust and thrift shop clothing he picked up nearby.

“The kids loved it. They always love it. To experience being part of something much bigger than yourself is something they don’t get to experience. It’s a pretty powerful feeling to be an
integral part of some grand, magnificent design and to know the power of what you can do when you collaborate with lots of other people.”

Patrick Almenas, a Penobscot canoe builder, was consulted for details of the unique birch bark canoes built and used by the Wabanaki peoples – the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseets and the Micmac, who have lived in the entire Northeastern region on both sides of the Canadian-U.S. border since time immemorial.

“This birch bark Art for the Sky project has allowed the Indian Island School children and tribal members to dig deeper into their past by appreciating the life source of the Penobscot River,” he said, noting that the canoe is perfect in its form and function.

“Once they finished building it, there were no improvements. When the early colonists came, they realized the way to get up the river was to learn how to use the birch bark canoe. So that was kind of our demise, also.”

According to Penobscot tradition, the tribe’s culture hero Klose-kur-beh, also known as Glooscap, taught them how to make the lightweight, fast canoes that were used to travel thousands of miles of the sacred river and its tributaries.

Almenas advised Dancer about the shape of the canoe and the traditional method of using only one piece of bark, how spruce root is used for lashing along the gunnels, and the meaning of the symbolic patterns etched into winter bark on the side panels.

“It was great doing the project right there next to the river. The river is our highway. We traveled everywhere on it. There were Penobscot settlements up and down the Penobscot River.

“Now, to me, what is so special about the birch bark canoe is when you’re paddling up the river, you can kind of relive what it must have been like 300 years ago. It’s pretty much the same,” Almenas said.

Although the river looks the same, it has suffered damage from 200 years of industry and dams that have depleted its once abundant population of migratory fish. But a major project – the Penobscot River Restoration Project – is under way. More than $25 million has been raised by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, a partnership of tribal, state and federal government agencies, nonprofit conservation groups and a hydroelectric company to remove some dams and restore more than 1,000 miles of habitat for Atlantic salmon and 10 other species of migratory fish.

The Sky Canoe project was funded by American Rivers, with additional support from other restoration partners.

“We are excited to be able to bring this inspiring and educational event to this riverside community,” said Laura Wildman, chief engineer at American Rivers. “The event’s ‘Flow Like the Water’ theme perfectly highlights the benefits that a free-flowing Penobscot River will bring to the community.”