Chris Newell remembers the almost giddy level of excitement he felt when he visited the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine as a kid. Every summer, the family drove for more than two hours for his father to perform songs about their Passamaquoddy language at the Native Market and the Native American Festival hosted by the museum.
But even as a young person, Newell could clearly see the difference between the the Native Market and the Festival, which were run by members of the Wabanaki Nations, and the Museum itself, which was not.
Today, Chris Newell, a Passamaquoddy citizen, is the first member of the Wabanaki Nations to lead the Abbe Museum. When he took on the role, the museum changed his title to Executive Director and Senior Partner to Wabanaki Nations, one of many steps toward decolonizing the museum and shifting power. In this episode, Newell describes how to spot a colonial museum, how museums’ default colonial mindset—including when it comes to maps and language—harms everyone, and his plan for his tenure.
Image: Beadwork by Kristen Newell (Mashantucket Pequot). Wabanaki double-curve motif with dawn time as the background.
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Chris Newell remembers visiting the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine as a kid. His father was hired to put on educational performances, to perform songs about their Passamaquoddy language, history and culture at the Native Market and the Native American Festival hosted by the museum.
So every summer, the family would drive the two and a half hours from their home Motahkmikuhk. Newell looked forward to it year after year with an almost giddy level of excitement.
But even as a young person, Newell could clearly see the difference between the surrounding events, like the Native market and the Festival, which were run by members of the Wabanaki Nations, and the Museum itself, which was not.
Chris Newell: Back then, the Abbe Museum was more of a traditional ethnographic collection, a lot of lithics and things like that, so when it came to the museum itself, it did feel very much like a colonial museum. It was a Bar Harbor institution, not necessarily a Wabanaki institution. So I definitely felt a lot more connection to things like the events, the Native American festival and those because those were Native run and the Abbe supporting them. Although I knew what the Abbe had, I knew the special collection, I knew the treasure that they have as far as the history of my peoples, Passamaquoddy people as well as Wabanaki peoples in general. and so I've always been attracted to what is available in the Abbe. Back then as a child, I felt it was kind of two different spaces.
Today, Chris Newell, a Passamaquoddy citizen, is the first member of the Wabanaki Nations to lead the Abbe Museum.
Chris Newell: Hi everybody. My name is Chris Newell and I am the director of education for the Akomawt Educational Initiative, also a cofounder, and I'm also the executive director and senior partner to Wabanaki nations for the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Chris Newell cofounded the Akomawt Educational Initiative in 2018 with endawnis Spears (Diné/ Ojibwe/ Chickasaw/ Choctaw) and Dr. Jason Mancini. Akomawt is a Passamaquoddy word for the snowshoe path. At the beginning of winter, the snowshoe path is hard to find. But the more people pass along and carve out this path through the snow during the season, the easier it becomes for everyone to walk it together.
On episode 68 of this show, we interviewed Spears about how the Initiative was born out of their experiences seeing colonial museum practices across present-day New England.So what do we mean when we say colonial museum -- outside the context of Colonial Williamsburg, of course.
Chris Newell: this kind of goes off of my colleague endawnis Spears who was on Museum Archipelago before: museums are colonial artifacts. The idea of a museum comes with colonization. And tribal museums, even in their own right, are using that colonial artifacts methodology as a way to present their native histories, although they do it in different in a tribal museum. In a non-tribal museum largely it's based off of the American Conservation Movement, which started in the 19th century. And when it came to museums and especially the way museum content was created, colonial museums would oftentimes focus on tribes that they felt at the time were less impacted, which would have been Western Plains tribes and Southwestern tribes.
Chris Newell: So if you go into a non-tribal museum that has native content, a colonial museum, then what you typically see is a presentation of native cultures from through the lens of anthropology and archeology. And a lot of those voices, 99% of those voices, especially in the past were non-native voices that were framing that lens on how to view our cultures and so it's not uncommon to see things that may seem out of place. So to go to a Northeastern museum that has a Native collection and to see only Plains artwork or only Southwestern pottery and no Wampum art, no Ash Splint basketry is really kind of an old fashioned way of presenting things that goes back to a mode of thinking that really originated in the idea that Native people were going to vanish at one point, and that we needed our history saved by an outside force. And that's literally what the colonial museum represents is that mindset.
And the Abbe Museum is rooted in that mindset. Opened in 1928, it housed the collection of Native American objects gathered by radiologist Robert Abbe in a purpose-built building.
Newell was hired to lead the Abbe Museum in February 2020, just before lockdowns due to Covid-19 began. But the decolonization process had been going on at the museum for the past five years.
Chris Newell: The Abbe Museum has gone through the past five years under the previous executive director, the president-CEO at the time, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, a decolonization process. And part of that was not just in the content of the museum, which centers Native voices now, but also in the structure of the way the museum is run. And the Abbe has, over time, restructured its board to become a majority Wabanaki board. So, as a colonial museum that presents Wabanaki history, we are probably the only museum that has that structure, where the voice of the people that we are representing is now centered and also is governing the institution itself.
When the changeover in directorship happened, the museum changed the title from president and CEO to executive director and Senior Partner to Wabanaki Nations as part of this decolonization process and the shift of power.
Chris Newell: The Wabanaki tribes of today are five tribes, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Miꞌkmaq, Maliseet, and Abenaki tribes and the history, there was 20 tribes at one point , but currently there are five tribes. Wabanaki are, is an overarching term for the cosmology of the peoples in those tribes in the belief, in the Gloosekap stories, a creation named Gloosekap created our people from the ash trees and gave us the name Wabanaki, which is the anglicized version of in Passamaquoddy Wolastoqiyik, which would translate to the people of the Dawn. Collectively, that's how we see ourselves. We understand that we are the Eastern most tribes on the continent. And we are all connected in that way.
So when it comes to that portion of my job, I take it very, very seriously. There's no book, right? There's no example for me to follow. I think about the museum world and the lack of representation by native people in the museum world. There's a history for the reason why that is, but what I always tell people is that it doesn't not do us any good as native people to be absent from these spaces. No matter what these spaces are interpreting our cultures and our histories and everything else, therefore we need to be present there. 85% of native people work in the museum field as an entry level of visitor services or security. And very few of us get up into the intellectual leadership positions and what I would want to do, in the long run, I would love to see the Abbe museum have full Wabanaki staff. I mean, that would be the, the biggest goal I could actually have, but how do I do that? I need to partner the community into the museum world. That way, the Abbe always feels like a welcoming space to any of the community members from the Wabanaki communities in Maine and beyond.
Newell acknowledges that encouraging members of the Wabanaki Nations to work at the Abbe Museum can be an uphill battle because of the racist history of museums like it.
Chris Newell: The way museums in the past have done things like hold on to Native American remains that has, you know, the older generation would not go into those physical spaces because of that. The Abbe museum is one of the places where we have repatriated all of those remains and we're making it into a welcome space and that's a big change for the museum world.
But even outside of holding onto human remains, there are many examples of how museums’ default colonial mindset can—in addition to everything else—lead to a worse visitor experience.
Chris Newell: As somebody that used to work in a tribal museum, it was not uncommon for me in that space for a non-native visitor, whether a child or adult to ask whether the tribe that we were presenting the history of still existed. There's a lot of people in this world that still think that Native people are all dead and gone, and that's oftentimes reinforced by their childhood experiences and their adult experiences going into a colonial museum and seeing artifacts that are only from the past or seeing our work that is only from the past.
And so for museums to update or be decolonized the way that they present themselves. They really gotta get out of that mode of trying to save a vanishing culture, but rather hosts the art in the histories of the living cultures that exist here now.
One of the easiest ways to tell if you’re visiting a colonial museum is if it doesn’t ask you as the visitor to normalize some aspect of the culture presented. So an Abbe Museum experience that only features maps with modern-day political borders, or is entirely in English, is not doing a good job of presenting the culture that members of the Wabanaki Nations share.
Chris Newell: Two dimensional maps are, of course, a European a derivation or creation, Native people map the world in a different way. And we use songs, very long songs and orations to map our territory. But if you go into the exhibits, what we did was we did create a two dimensional map of all of Wabanaki territory, but we took out the roads and the cities and all the colonial borders. And then when you see the landscape that way, representative in that fashion, you see how it all of a sudden makes sense how our tribes existed, the riverways that separated our territories and all of those things.
Chris Newell: And you can see how people traveled, great distances, how they would portage from one river to another. So it’s also is going to enrich the experience for the non-Wabanaki visitor, because they're really going to be able to, you know, see our perspective in our worldview in our language and the way we view land, all of those things, not an interpretation, but rather a first person perspective, which is really, really a powerful and impactful way.
Bar Harbor, Maine is an international tourist destination—cruise ships dock there. Today, the museum’s exhibits and signage are mostly in English, but Newell hopes that under his tenure, much more Native language gets incorporated to the point where a non-Wabanaki visitor will have learned some Native words before they leave the museum.
Chris Newell: Iit gets rid of the implicit bias that colonial museums have been feeding for so long. When the early English would arrive in the 17th century, they would use the word “improvement” as a reason for taking over and subduing land. Building things like farms, permanent housing. But nowadays in America we used a word development to do the exact same thing, but when we use that word development, what we mean is we're about to dig up a big plot of that life giving life cycle, and we're going to do something and build something, but really the process involved destruction first.
Chris Newell: Viewing the landscape through the different languages really gives you a window into the different mindsets. The use of language I think is probably the best bridge that I can draw for making all of that happen. When an English speaker learns some of our language and learn some of our worldview through it, they have experienced something. And so for the non-Native museum visitor, the international visitor to come through and to learn our worldview through our language and to have it normalized, you know, to have the bathroom signs to say, “skitap” and “ehpit”, you know, instead of men's and women's,, and for people to figure that out with the international signs, you know, but they would learn, some of our wording and that’s a profound experience.
As Newell says, there’s no book and there’s no guide for the process of transforming the Abbe Museum from a colonial, traditional ethnographic collection into a fully decolonized museum run by members of the Wabanaki Nations. But because of work like this, the snowshoe path becomes a little bit easier for other museums to follow.
Chris Newell: We want to be informative to anyone who would walk through the door. But we also want to be informative to the Wabanaki person. And then by also doing that the Wabanaki people who already know that language come into a space that uses their worldview and then it doesn't become a Bar Harbor institution, to the Wabanaki visitor anymore. It starts to become a home away from home. We are in the land of the Dawn, no matter what. And so the Wabanaki visitor should feel that sense of welcoming one walking into that space.
Chris Newell: This is really a passion of mine, a passion that was born out of my childhood, watching my father, you know, making a difference in this world. And that's what I would hope to do. I leave a lofty goal of my future in that I would hope that by the time I am done with this world, that I have changed it for the better, not just for the good of Wabanaki people, but for everybody.