Indigenous community development group works to boost Abenaki economies

Indigenous Mainers are working on a plan to boost tourism for the state’s five Wabanaki nations.

The Wabanaki Cultural Tourism Initiative received both a federal grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services and a state grant from the Maine Office of Tourism.

As a member of the Penobscot Nation, Charlene Virgilio, executive director of Four Directions Development Corp., northern New England’s first Aboriginal community development financial institution, said cultural preservation is at the heart of the project. Her goal is to create unique experiences to share how the Wabanaki have long been stewards of the land and water.

“Canoeing, kayaking along the ancient rivers we have, traditional fishing methods, whatever,” she said. “Those kinds of things that will help preserve the culture but also help tourists experience that culture.”

Four Directions and the initiative participated in Governor Janet Mills’ annual tourism conference last week. Virgilio said authenticity is key for many Wabanaki communities interested in boosting tourism.

In addition to preserving and sharing culture, said Matthew Lewis, director of Wabanaki program and operations for Four Directions and a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, this effort is a way to bring more income to Maine’s native communities and stimulate local economies. For example, he said, there are so many artisans in the community to engage with.

“Tourism can sometimes have a negative connotation with certain communities…we don’t want people just driving around, taking pictures, doing the Disneyland kind of package,” he said. “We want meaningful engagement with the community and meaningful engagement with the culture.”

As they map out the robust four-season tourism industry they hope to achieve by 2030, Lewis said they also need to consider the necessary infrastructure – from hotels and restaurants to workforce development and in hotel training.

Photo: A view of the Penobscot River at Bucksport. | Through the Natural Resources Defense Council

Norma P. Rex