Indigenous People's Day
Respectfully submitted by Paul McDonough, Vice President, Biddeford Historical Society
Posted by Admin, October 11, 2021
As a salute and expression of deep respect to the Native Americans who once populated our Saco River Valley on this Indigenous People’s Day, October 11, I submit the following narrative and pictures for our readers and members of the Biddeford Historical Society to dwell upon.
When the Europeans arrived in the present Saco Bay they took great wonder upon the native people they encountered. Small villages with longhouses and wigwams were in evidence throughout the Saco River Valley. For thousands of years these people had lived in harmony with a dependence on what the natural environment was willing to provide them with.
Engaged in both hunter food gathering and intense farming our Native American ancestors had fallen upon this region lying most north along the eastern seaboard of the Western Hemisphere.
It was here along the banks of the Saco that Our Native American ancestors supplemented their needs by both agriculture and hunter-food gathering. The Saco River was also used as an excellent highway reaching far into the interior all the way to present day New Hampshire. They constructed birch bark canoes in lengths up to 25 feet as river and ocean going vessels.
The various tribes of people were almost all part of the Wabanaki cultural grouping. The name Wabanaki translates into, “The People of the Dawn”. It was for them that the sun rose first from the east along the coastal plain of Maine.
When the great French explorer, Samuel de Champlain recorded his visit to the mouth of the Saco in the summer of 1605 he was very much touched with the positive impression of these people he called Almouchiqua. He found them to be physically strong and vibrant of spirit, many of whom who had tattoos on their chests of both a salmon and a sturgeon. He noted that they were taller than any of the French seamen of his ship. On the site on the southern shore of the mouth of the river members of tribe danced and sang in a welcoming manner to Champlain and his men. (One may see this beach from the aerial view attached to this post. Known today as "Freddy Beach" it refers to the Frederick dormitory attached to the UNE campus today.) They exchanged gifts and brought the highly impressed Champlain into one of the villages. Surrounded by vertical poles in the form of a stockade these defensive fortifications suited them well for protection against competing tribes.
Champlain refused to describe the women out of respect and wanted no ill words to be used against them by anyone in their presence. The men wore their hair long, pulled to the top of their heads and lying off to one side. Their clothing was made primarily from skins and pelts with no sign of woven fabrics at the time of the meeting. They decorated their hair with feathers and sea shells.
Hunting and defensive tools of the Almouchiqua were constructed of stone and wood. The flint rocks were extremely sharp allowing for hunter and fishermen the ability to procure a large variety of animals and fish. To think of a man reaching out beyond the bow of a birch bark canoe and thrusting a harpoon like device into a swordfish is an image that modern sportsman would stand in awe of today. The same could be said of a hunting party engaged with a massive black bear with no guns or modern weaponry.
As stated, this river valley was the northern most reach of intense agriculture. Fields were cleared by slash and burn techniques with great care by judging the wind so as not to create wild fires. It was from these opened spaces and fields that the Wabanaki people created a sustainable supply of sustenance. Crops of corn planted in mounds with beans and a variety of squash on the outer edges worked perfectly and gave these people a level of dietary constancy that others to the north did not have.
Unfortunately, these “People of the Dawn” fell victim to the various plagues contracted by their contact with the Europeans. It wasn’t shot and shell that led to their demise. It was a variety of pathogens that laid waste to a people who had thrived in the Saco River valley for literally thousands of years. Their legacy is an important part of our own cultural composition. Let us not ever forget this!
Further readings by George Folsom, Jacques Downs, Charles Butler, Margaret Alley, and Emma Bouthillette will aid the reader in discovering evidence of the value and strength contained within our own Native American Heritage in Biddeford.