The state of Maine began using the moniker vacationland on its license plates in 1936. But few if any of the millions of people who visit the state each year go to the Wabanaki Nations. Now, though, an ambitious cultural tourism initiative hopes to bring the lands of the People of the First Light to wider attention.
For the past few years, Four Directions Development Corporation (FDDC) has worked to develop a comprehensive cultural tourism plan that aims to draw visitors to the wealth of experiences, resources and products that the Wabanaki Confederacy Nations of Maine have to offer.
“We’re interested in creating a Wabanaki Cultural Resort—a hotel with a cultural center—and we are interested in bringing awareness of the Wabanaki to the people here in Maine and in the Northeast and beyond,” said FDDC Executive Director Susan Hammond, a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation. “Our market is actually worldwide. We know there is an interest in Indigenous Peoples and certainly in North American Indians, and we’re trying to create our Wabanaki brand similar to the Northwest tribes around Seattle or even the Southwest tribes. When you see their colors and art, you know where they’re from. We want to do the same for the Wabanaki.”
The FDDC is close to choosing the resort’s location but not yet ready to announce it, Hammond said.
FDDC is a Native American Community Development Financial Institution. The organization provides specially designed programs to ensure that tribal members of all four Maine Wabanaki tribes—the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet—can access and use capital resources effectively and efficiently. It provides financial assistance for housing and small businesses and help with financial literacy and counseling.
Increasing cultural tourism to help create jobs and a sustainable tourism economy within the communities had been discussed early on, Hammond recalled. Crucial to the effort was Donna Loring, the FDDC’s Wabanaki Tourism Coordinator and the Penobscot Indian Nation’s Representative to the Maine State Legislature for several terms.
“Donna came in three or four years ago and wanted to see if we’d be willing to move that forward, and we got some funding and did a feasibility study and business plan,” Hammond said.
The Wabanaki Cultural Resort will act as a hub to draw people to the area and direct them to the four communities. “Many people don’t realize there are still four tribes in Maine and they’re still going strong, maintaining their cultural heritage and traditions,” Hammond said. “So with this resort, we’d like to bring awareness and have it draw people to Maine, and then we’ll package tours to the tribes and send them to the tribal communities where they’ll have an immersion-type experience in the tribal community.”
Each tribe will be able to control the flow of people into and out of their lands and determine what kinds of activities and experiences to provide. Along with the cultural resort, FDDC will create the Wabanaki Cultural Tourism Center, which will provide training in the areas of hospitality, business development and the culinary arts. The center will help a tribe or individual tribal members create the infrastructure of tourism, Hammond said. The relevant businesses would include hotels, gas stations, RV parks, campgrounds, museums, retail shops, and restaurants serving Wabanaki food. The tribe also offers canoeing and white-water rafting.
Plans are also in the works to create a guide cooperative that can provide guide services year-round for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.
Two important tools in the effort are the Wabanaki Trail and the Virtual Wabanaki Market, both located on FDDC’s website. The Wabanaki Trail is a map of Maine, featuring each tribe’s seal, which links to a page with information about its points of interest, accommodations, restaurants and directions. The Virtual Wabanaki Market is an online market for Wabanaki artists and artisans, especially the famous Wabanaki basket makers, to sell their goods directly to customers. The Market feature of the website will launch within the next month or two.
Another FDDC initiative now under way with two pilot programs is “voluntourism” —a cost effective way to get work done in a community. In essence, vacationers perform service work, like archaeological field studies, while engaging in traditional tourist activities.
The development of the Wabanaki tourism industry won’t happen overnight, Hammond acknowledged. Still, she said, “We always felt that tourism was a natural for the tribes, and we’re hoping it catches on.”