Survival of the Fittest: A review of The Penobscot Dance of Resistance

by Oct 20, 2010A&E0 comments


The Penobscot Dance of Resistance, by Pauleena Macdougall, explores the themes of sovereignty, cultural survival, and resistance.

“The story of the dance of resistance proves that cultural continuity does not mean cultural sameness,and cultural change does not result in total assimilation or extinction,” asserts the author. “Clearly, the Penobscots made numerous changes in their lives as a means of resisting assimilation and extinction,” Macdougall explains. This book chronicles these changes, called “accomodations under protest, with a realization of an underpinning of cultural differences.”

Macdougall is the editor of Northeast Folklore, and the associate director of the Main Folklife Center. In this book, she demonstrates the ways in which a tribe that historians expected to become extinct by the 19th century has endured into the 21st.

“When the Penobcots encountered new challenges brought by the Europeans, they were able to turn to their traditions for responses,” the author posits. These “core teachings” provided the tribe with fuel for the fire of resistance against the forces that would foster extinction. This book addresses these ideas and principles, and demonstrates how they prepared the Penobscots for resistance.

Further, the retention of a land base and of sovereignty insured the survival of the Penobscots. Macdougall mentions that “the Penobscots wanted their lands left alone, with natural resources left intact.” In addition, “they managed by virtue of a persistent petitioning of the state authorities to retain a land base and to gradually improve their own standard of living through education and industrious wage earning and basket making.”

An important aspect of Penobscot survival is the presence of “traditional skills” and “the commodification of culture”. The tribe blended industry and wisdom into an empire of basket making and the creation of traditional crafts that were sold to demanding collectors. Convinced that the tribe would soon become a thing of the past, collectors and others interested in Indians purchased crafts from tribal members. This led to economic development, and increased educational opportunities.

“The Penobscots continue to create a community with an ethnic identity, with strong moral convictions–convictions that include American nationalism and integration into the American economy,” the author states.

For Native communities who share similar convictions,this book is a worthwhile read. This book is an informative lesson about the history of a strong tribe.

Book Info:  Macdougall,Pauleena. Lebanon,NH:University Press of New England, 2004, $24.95,ISBN#:1-58465-381-7;250 pages,, paperback.