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  • Bangor Daily News

    A 21-foot sculpture honors the tribes that hunted swordfish in the gulf of Maine

    By Jules Walkup,

    2024-06-09
    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=4MZ0gs_0tlUatmg00

    A 21-foot sculpture of a swordfish now stands on the shore of North Haven island, its long, sharp bill pointing toward the sky as Penobscot Bay glitters behind it.

    Designed by Camden artist duo Billy Sims and Ann McClellan and woven together out of willow by volunteers and local students, the new piece of artwork is a striking tribute to the Wabanaki people who hunted swordfish off the island some 5,000 years ago.

    The sculpture was recently built at Turner Farm , the site of archaeological excavations in the 1970s that revealed the ancient history of the Indigenous people who once lived there.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0j9839_0tlUatmg00
    A 21-foot swordfish sculpture made of willow in North Haven. The artists, Billy Sims and Ann McClellan made the sculpture in tribute to the ancient Indigenous tribes in the area that depended on the giant fish. Credit: Courtesy of Billy Sims

    Many tools made from swordfish were found at the site and had been buried with the people, showing how integral the giant fish was to them, according to McLellan, a ceramic artist, school teacher, and part-time resident of the island.

    “As a teacher, I wanted to generate wonder and generate thought for students about, and this awareness about, earlier peoples, and have them consider who those peoples were, what their lifestyle might have been, what they had to consider when they were fishing for swordfish, how they might take on this massive fish,” she said.

    This is why Sims, who is a basket weaver, and McClellan spent a year gathering the resources and making the connections needed to construct and assemble the sculpture, they said in an interview.

    Because the body of the fish is made of willow — a material that was also used by the Indigenous people  — it’s natural and fits the location, Sims said. But because of that, he noted, it may only maintain its integrity in the salty coastal Maine air for two years.

    Sims and McClellan unveiled the sculpture on May 18, in an event attended by more than 100 members of the community, they said. Students from the North Haven Community School also participated, weaving smaller fish to attach to the base of the sculpture.

    The event also featured two other speakers, famed fishing boat captain Linda Greenlaw and Chris Sockalexis, an archaeologist who is the historic preservation officer for the Penobscot Nation.

    “It’s really, really amazing how everything came together,” Sockalexis said in an interview.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=13PSLM_0tlUatmg00
    A 21-foot swordfish sculpture made of willow in North Haven. The artists, Billy Sims and Ann McClellan made the sculpture in tribute to the ancient Indigenous tribes in the area that depended on the giant fish. Credit: Courtesy of Billy Sims

    “I thought the art project itself was really cool, but it was community-driven too.” Then referring to the archaeological findings at Turner Farm, he added, “It was the perfect spot.”

    A big shift was happening during the period when Indigenous people were hunting swordfish off the midcoast islands. They were moving away from stone tools, and increasingly favoring those made from bone and wood, Sockalexis said.

    Given that, he said swordfish wasn’t just a source of food for the Indigenous people from that time and region — who are sometimes known as the Red Paint People — but also an important material for constructing tools including harpoons.

    “They’re just amazing,” he said of artifacts that have been recovered.

    But Sockalexis also noted that it’s getting harder to do archaeological work on the islands, given that important sites have been eroded away by rising seas and increasingly heavy storms.

    Sims and McLellan said the depiction of the giant swordfish can now help bridge connections between the current residents of North Haven and the Wabanaki Nations, while also rekindling an awareness of the area’s history.

    “This really opened the door for discussion of ways that they could work cooperatively together,” Sims said. “For example, how do they handle artifacts that turn up there, you know, those kinds of issues. Now, they’re working together to kind of resolve these things.”

    BDN writer Charles Eichacker contributed reporting.

    Jules Walkup is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by BDN readers.

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