July 02, 2020

Passamaquoddys to regain Machias Bay petroglyphs

MACHIAS – The Passamaquoddy Tribe is poised to regain nearly six acres of shorefront land in Machiasport that contain ancient petroglyphs, some of them 3,000 years old.

The archaeological treasure of artwork chiseled into rocks was created by the Passamaquoddy as recently as the 1700s, but since had fallen into private hands for generations.

A transfer of deeds next month will return the land in Machiasport to the Passamaquoddy by way of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

The Joint Tribal Council last month approved a plan by which the nonprofit trust will purchase the property on Machias Bay, then give the six acres to the tribe in exchange for a permanent conservation easement on different shorefront acreage owned by the tribe, also in Machiasport.

How the preservation of the petroglyph site will be handled in the future, as a place open to the public, was discussed Friday at a meeting of a public committee dedicated to that purpose.

“The family [that owns the land] told me in the 1980s that the Passamaquoddy and researchers were welcome to visit the petroglyphs, but they weren’t interested in any national historic designation that would protect the site,” said Mark Hedden, a committee member who is considered the state’s foremost authority on this kind of art.

“We had concerns that this land could one day go up for development, that we could lose the archaeological and cultural heritage of the petroglyphs.”

That won’t happen.

Last year the property owners put a $1.7 million price tag on their land, which includes a house and additional acreage that the trust or tribe will not be acquiring at this point. The owners later subdivided the land into four parcels, and the trust is purchasing two of them, including a key site for petroglyphs, for a lesser, undisclosed amount.

The University of Maine at Machias’ participation in planning for the petroglyphs’ future has been a crucial part of the decisions that have led to the sale of the land to the trust and the tribe.

Two UMM professors have taken an active interest in the petroglyphs since 2003. Bernie Vinzani, an artist, and Mike Kimball, an anthropologist, have taken students to the site in summer courses to learn the history of the area and appreciate the petroglyphs for their cultural significance.

UMM’s art gallery has hosted two shows since 2004 about the local petroglyphs, one with surface prints and the other with photographs. UMM also last year developed the separate Machias Bay Petroglyphs Resource Room where the public can learn more without going to the actual sites.

The precise location of as many as nine known sites of petroglyphs within Machias Bay is a closely held secret lest the public trample on the artwork without respect.

The committee to work on ways to secure the Machias Bay land for the Passamaquoddy formed about two years ago. Hedden, Vinzani, Kimball and tribal historian Donald Soctomah are some of the committee members.

“[The Passamaquoddy] have been going in the direction of getting back land that is significant to Passamaquoddy history,” Soctomah said at Friday’s meeting at UMM.

“We had the return in 2000 from Domtar of a burial island in the west branch of the St. Croix River. This will be another step in the tribe getting back its heritage.”

Soctomah has been working with the tribe’s children on a ceremony that will take place on the site in late October. The ceremony will include language, drumming, dancing and maybe a sweat lodge.

Tribal celebrations are believed to have last occurred on the petroglyph sites in Machias Bay in the 1700s, Kimball noted.

“To think that 300 years later, we are talking about a Passamaquoddy ceremony there again is very powerful,” he said.

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