How many times have you seen signs for an American Indian Museum and thought — right or wrong — “another tourist trap.” Maybe it offered a display of arrowheads or, more likely, “American Indian crafts” for sale that were made in Japan or China.
Well, that was my assumption until recently, when I found a real, honest-to-goodness museum filled with amazing native artifacts from the U.S., Canada and South America — in New Portland, Maine. About 18 miles north of Farmington on Route 27.
The museum is the result of years of collecting by Nowetah Cyr, and is operated by Nowetah, her husband, Tom, and daughter, Wahleyah.
Cyr is a descendant of the St. Francis Abenaki Indians and Paugussett Indians, which, she says, have yet to be recognized by the U.S. government. Cyr began collecting artifacts at the age of 8 while living in Connecticut. She and her brother would listen to the stories told by the older generation. They began to collect arrowheads and whatever else they could afford to buy with what little money they had. That began Cyr’s journey toward learning more about the history and culture of native Americans, and eventually other native people.
From 1969 to 1975 Cyr worked at Chesebrough-Ponds in Connecticut. On her vacations she would pack up her old Nash Rambler station wagon, tents and her two kids and travel around the country doing volunteer work for the Audubon Society, helping out with studies on animals, birds and herbs. On these trips she would camp, find the nearest reservation or village and buy whatever she could afford from them. She was able to talk to the people she bought items from and bought some things that had been passed down for generations. She made sure to write down whatever information she could obtain about the pieces she bought.
In 1975 Cyr moved to Maine to her current location in New Portland and slowly built her business and museum. She continued to collect, contacting reservations around the country and putting her name on a list for artifacts if and when they became available. If an older member of the reservation passed away and the family didn’t want the articles, they would be given to the reservation. Reservation leaders would contact people on the list and see if they wanted them. Through this method, Cyr was able to acquire more items and as well as the history of those things.
Cyr also finds pieces in antique shops; some shop owners now know her so well they’ll call her when they find a piece they feel she would be interested in.
Throughout her many years collecting, Cyr has done extensive research on native crafts to help her date the many items in her collection or at least corroborate a date passed on from its previous owner.
The result is an unexpectedly large offering of native works, some dating back to the early 1800s and some that are truly amazing to behold.
Upon entering the museum, visitors first encounter a small gift shop overflowing with items. There are many interesting things there, but the magic and history can be found in the two back rooms of the museum.
Each piece in the collection has been historically researched and tagged with information. There are, yes, arrowheads, as well as clay pipes, birch bark moose calls, seal skin items, curved handle knives, dolls, headdresses, hollowed out trees made into large mortars and pestles that were used to grind maize, bone spoons, shell beads used as money, birch bark cradle boards, rawhide-and-wood fish traps, log-and-hide drums, Cree brain-tanned mitts and boots and much more.
There is a Micmac dugout canoe, and a birch bark canoe with porcupine quill embellishments.
There are ceremonial masks from the Iroquois of New York, and oak splint baskets from North Carolina’s Cherokee Indians.
Pottery from the Pueblo and Navajo tribes, along with Eskimo items and masks from some South American natives.
A wall is covered in animal hides and the two canoes are also filled with pelts from beaver to bear.
Of particular note: a pair of moccasins from the Algonquin tribe in Quebec dating back to 1880 are made of brain-tanned, smoked moose hide with glass beadwork. Remarkable.
And among the many interesting, unique and beautiful items are an exquisite porcupine quill basket made by the Micmac and a Passamaquoddy fancy periwinkle weave basket. The workmanship and detail is extraordinary. More art than craft. The fancy work was begun in the Victorian era to sell to white people, according to Cyr. American Indians made fancy hat boxes to sell to white women to carry their hats in on the stagecoach, and were later used in the home to store things.
Cyr and her daughter, Wahleyah, make a lot of the items for sale in the gift shop, including porcupine quill earrings and necklaces, authentic clothing, dream catchers, sweet grass baskets, woven blankets and more. The proceeds from the gift shop pay for the upkeep of the museum.
Did I mention there is no charge to see this amazing museum? The museum and shop are handicap accessible and they are open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round. Enjoy the drive up and bring your camera to take photos of the museum pieces, some of which you won’t see anywhere else in Maine. This is the most comprehensive collection of native artifacts of the Americas that I have ever seen. Plan to spend a few hours there at the very least.
Where: 2 Colegrove Road, Route 27, New Portland, Maine
When: Open every day year round from 10 to 5
Handicap accessible: Yes