Sapiel Neptune (right) poses with Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis
at his inauguration ceremony in 2014. Jennifer created the
headdress, collar and cuffs by hand, a reproduction of Penobscot
artifacts from 1870 that are part of the collection at Orono's
(photo courtesy of Matthew Polstein)
Jennifer Sapiel Neptune artist, anthropologist, educator
and member of the Penobscot Nation has integrated her myriad
skills to intertwine the past and the present, giving life to the
future of her community. Her most recent reproduction from Penobscot
history was a ceremonial headdress, cuffs and a collar, hand-decorated
with intricate beadwork. It took Jennifer hundreds of hours to make
the pieces, but the craft was only part of the job. It also was
important to infuse the three garments with the spirit of their
heritage. So Jennifer embarked upon a journey with them, all over
the state of Maine.
I first met Jennifer four years ago, when I wrote a story about
her basketry. Jennifer has been interested in artifacts and historic,
native craftwork since her youth.
As a teenager I went to the [University of Maine] library
and read Native American books about my tribe and others," she said.
There were these amazing black-and-white photographs of beadwork
and baskets. I wanted to see them in color. I wanted to make them."
Jennifer enrolled at the University of Maine as an anthropology
major with the express purpose of being allowed access to the native
artifacts in the collections of the Hudson Museum.
I could see and touch them and really study them," she
One of the artifacts in the museum's collection is the original
collar and cuffs that served as Jennifer's model, made around 1870
and worn by Penobscot chiefs in the early 20th century. In recent
years, the tribe has borrowed the artifacts to lie on a table during
ceremonies, but they are too delicate to be worn. Jennifer's work
has given her community a living facsimile of their traditional
sacred garments, made of brown wool cloth and decorated with tens
of thousands of glass beads. The beads give the items substantial
weight. That is no accident.
The collar symbolizes that the weight of our community
and all our families is on the chief's shoulders, and the cuffs
bind him to his duties," Jennifer explained.
of the ceremonial beaded cuffs, handmade by artist and anthropologist
Jennifer Sapiel Neptune.
Symbolism and spirit are deeply important in Penobscot culture.
As Jennifer worked on the pieces, she journeyed throughout Penobscot
territory with the whole set in hand. It was with her during a commemorative
multi-day canoe trip on the East and Main Branches of the Penobscot
River and another trip on the West Branch. She took it to Mount
Katahdin and to islands in Penobscot Bay. It accompanied Jennifer
to socials community get-togethers with pot-luck meals, singing,
dancing and drumming and came along to a language immersion
camp, where many Wabanaki languages were taught and spoken.
It heard songs. It heard all of the languages," she said,
referring to the work in progress. I was trying to put spirit
and life into it, infuse it with power, spirit.
to explain. I hoped the energy of these places and our ancestors
would come into it, to remind our people and our leaders about our
connections to our ancestors and to our future."
There is a story behind that desire to nourish the future of
the Penobscot community. Around the turn of the 20th century there
was a push amongst European-descent anthropologists to collect Native
artifacts, because, they believed, Native Americans were a vanishing
race" that needed to be preserved. Their race did not vanish, and
the avid collecting resulted in a great loss for Native American
communities. The material treasures of their culture were gone from
their midst, relegated to archives and museums worldwide. Jennifer's
hope, then, was to turn that trend around.
I'm kind of doing anthropology in reverse, giving artifacts
back to the community as reproductions, for the future," Jennifer
Jennifer has tracked down Penobscot artifacts around the country,
including several in Orono. Gretchen Faulkner, director of the Hudson
Museum, has worked closely with Jennifer Neptune for years and is
thrilled with her work. Jennifer's reproductions give life to museum
All the objects in our collection provide links to the
past and inspiration to contemporary artists," Gretchen said. We
are stewards of these objects for the community. Jennifer's work
brings the objects full circle; it's a living collection."
Members of the Penobscot tribe donated the eagle feathers for
the headdress, found throughout the state over many years. That
is another way in which the ceremonial pieces represent the whole
Last year, at the inauguration of Chief Kirk Francis as president
of the Penobscot Nation, former Penobscot leaders touched and blessed
the ceremonial pieces before they were laid upon the new chief's
The set of sacred objects embodies the past, present and future
life of the Penobscot Nation. I was moved and proud to see
it used in a ceremony," Jennifer said.