Penobscots belong to the Algonquian linguistic family of Abnakis, Passamaquoddies, Malecites, and Pennacooks. They live on both sides of Penobscot Bay and up and down the whole area of the Penobscot River. They were visited by Samuel de Champlain in 1604 and numerous later explorers for the next 150 years. Penobscots made peace with the colonials and remained in their own country (not withdrawing to Canada). Conjointly with the Passamaquoddies, the Penobscots have a representative at sessions of the Maine legislature, privileged to speak on native American tribal affairs only.
In early Penobscot family narrative history, there are a few family groups possessing associated legends as their specific property. In the myth of the water famine, the transformer, Gluskabe, changes certain human beings into aquatic creatures. One of the original families’ identity was connected with creatures residing in the water.
Long ago, Klos-kur-beh, the Great Teacher, lived in the land where no people lived. One day at noon, a young man came to him and called him “Mother’s brother.”
Standing before Klos-kur-beh, he said, “I was born of the foam of the waters. The wind blew, and the waves quickened into foam. The sun shone on the foam and warmed it, and the warmth made life, and the life was I. See–I am young and swift, and I have come to abide with you and to help in all that you do.”
Again on a day at noon, a maiden came, stood before the two, and called them “my children.” “My children, I have come to abide with you and have brought with me love. I will give it to you, and if you will love me and will grant my wish, all the world will love me, even the very beasts. Strength is mine, and I give it to whosoever may get me. Comfort also is mine, for though I am young, my strength shall be felt over all the earth. I was born of the beautiful plant of the earth. For the dew fell on the leaf, and the sun warmed the dew, and the warmth was life, and that life is I.”
Then Klos-kur-beh lifted up his hands toward the sun and praised the Great Spirit. Afterward, the young man and the maiden became man and wife, and she became the first mother. Klos-kur-beh taught their children and did great works for them. When his works were finished, he went away to live in the Northland until it should be time for him to come again.
The people increased until they were numerous. When a famine came among them, the first mother grew more and more sorrowful. Every day at noon she left her husband’s lodge and stayed away from him until the shadows were long. Her husband, who dearly loved her, was sad because of her sorrow. One day he followed her trail as far as the ford of the river, and there he waited for her to return.
When she came, she sang as she began to ford the river, and as long as her feet were in the water she seemed glad. The man saw something that trailed behind her right foot, like a long green blade. When she came out of the water, she stooped and cast off the blade. Then she appeared sorrowful.
The husband followed her home as the sun was setting, and he bade her come out and look at the beautiful sun. While they stood side by side, there came seven little children. They stood in front of the couple, looked into the woman’s face, and spoke: “We are hungry, and the night will soon be here. Where is the food?”
Tears ran down the woman’s face as she said, “Be quiet, little ones. In seven moons you shall be filled and shall hunger no more.”
Her husband reached out, wiped away her tears, and asked, “My wife, what can I do to make you happy?”
“Nothing else,” she said. “Nothing else will make me happy.”
Then the husband went away to the Northland to ask Klos-kur-beh for counsel. With the rising of the seventh sun, he returned and said, “O wife, Klos-kur-beh has told me to do what you asked.”
The woman was pleased and said, “When you have slain me, let two men take hold of my hair and draw my body all the way around a field. When they have come to the middle of it, let them bury my bones. Then they must come away. When seven months have passed, let them go again to the field and gather all that they find. Tell them to eat it. It is my flesh. You must save a part of it to put in the ground again. My bones you cannot eat, but you may burn them. The smoke will bring peace to you and your children.”
The next day, when the sun was rising, the man slew his wife. Following her orders, two men drew her body over an open field until her flesh was worn away. In the middle of the field, they buried her bones.
When seven moons had passed by and the husband came again to that place, he saw it all filled with beautiful tall plants. He tasted the fruit of the plant and found it sweet. He called it Skar-mu- nal–“corn.” And on the place where his wife’s bones were buried, he saw a plant with broad leaves, bitter to the taste. He called it Utar-mur-wa-yeh– “tobacco.”
Then the people were glad in their hearts, and they came to the harvest. But when the fruits were all gathered, the man did not know how to divide them. So he sent to the great teacher, Klos- kur-beh, for counsel. When Klos-kur-beh came and saw the great harvest, he said, “Now have the first words of the first mother come to pass, for she said she was born of the leaf of the beautiful plant. She said also that her power should be felt over the whole world and that all men should love her.
“And now that she has gone into this substance, take care that the second seed of the first mother be always with you, for it is her flesh. Her bones also have been given for your good. Burn them, and the smoke will bring freshness to the mind. And since these things came from the goodness of a woman’s heart, see that you hold her always in memory. Remember her when you eat. Remember her when the smoke of her bones rises before you. And because you are all brothers, divide among you her flesh and her bones. Let all share alike, for so will the love of the first mother have been fulfilled.”
There were four brothers in a family that lived in a huge cave on the top of a high mountain in the present state of Maine. One brother was Northwind, one Southwind, another Westwind, and the other one Eastwind. They were the ones who made all of the winds blow.
Westwind was the youngest, Northwind the oldest, Southwind second oldest, and Eastwind second youngest. To cause the winds, they stood up with their heads above the cave hole and blew. The forthcoming wind occurred according to whichever brother performed–North, South, East, or West.
Westwind was very wild when he blew. Northwind chided him “No, No! Don’t do that! You will raise such high winds that you will destroy our good people, the Penobscots.”
When Westwind jumped up again to blow, Northwind again told him, “No! No! Stop or you will kill our mother.” So lived the Four Wind Brothers, causing and regulating the winds of the world.
Northwind was always the softest wind, Eastwind a little stronger and harsher, Southwind with strong gusts, but not as much as Westwind the youngest. Whenever the Four Wind Brothers blew the winds, they were not satisfied until each performed in his particular style to perfection.
Often they would say to each other as a warning, “We must try to care for our friends, the Penobscots, so we do not destroy any thing or any one of them.”
About this same time, a Giant Beaver had this home on the top of a great rock by the shore of Big Lake. This Giant Beaver, about one hundred feet long, had a very large lodge. Near him lived a Giant Penobscot who liked to hunt for the Giant Beaver. But Giant Penobscot lived in fear of a Monster Eagle, who kept watching all the time for the right moment to snatch and carry Giant Penobscot to its nest.
Monster Eagle was so large that he could pick up a giant man like an ordinary eagle would carry a rabbit, even though the giant was as tall as the tallest tree. At last Giant Penobscot’s family was out of food, and he was compelled to go out and hunt. He took his long-handled ice chisel and went in search of the Giant Beaver.
Giant Penobscot succeeded in driving the Beaver from his Lodge, and he cornered him and killed him. After packing the Giant Beaver on his back, Giant Penobscot joyfully started homeward with his prize. Monster Eagle had seen Giant Penobscot from a great height. Down swooped the Eagle, picking up both Giant Beaver and Giant Penobscot, as easily as carrying two rabbits.
Far up on a rocky mountainside, Monster Eagle flew with its prey to its nest, which was thousands of feet above the valley. Monster Eagle’s nest was enormous, with many young eagles in it. When Monster Eagle deposited his victims in the nest, he began feeding the dead beaver to his eaglets. Monster Eagle kept Giant Penobscot safely to one side, until all of the beaver had been eaten.
Then Monster Eagle prepared to kill the Giant Penobscot. He quickly flew high into the air and turned sharply, diving straight down to strike Giant Penobscot with his beak, wings, and claws. But Giant Penobscot held upright his sharp ice chisel with the butt end braced against a rocky ledge beside him. Monster Eagle descended violently upon the point of the ice chisel and he died instantly.
Now that Giant Penobscot was free, he wondered how he could get down to earth again before being eaten by the eaglets as they grew larger. He thought and thought, finally deciding to cut out the body of Monster Eagle and crawl inside the feathered skin, using Eagle’s wings to glide down from the mountain.
Coincidentally, on this same mountain lived the Four Wind Brothers. Northwind saw Monster Eagle destroy himself. He also observed Giant Penobscot preparing to fly down to earth. Northwind called his three brothers to come and see.
“Let us all blow gently beneath Eagle’s wings and help the good Penobscot to land softly upon the earth,” said Northwind to his Brother Winds.
Inside Monster Eagle’s wings, the Giant Penobscot soared off the mountain. Gently the Four Wind Brothers blew beneath his wings, guiding him while he easily floated to the Penobscot village below.
Meanwhile, when Giant Penobscot’s family found that he had disappeared, they knew he must have been carried away by some flying giant, because his tracks led to nowhere.
One of the ancient men of the Penobscot tribe said, “We must all help our brother escape with our good thoughts. We must wish for his safe return by Chief of the Sky Spirits.”
When Giant Penobscot floated safely back to his tribe and told his people of his adventure, the Ancient One said, “It was the strength of our wishes to Chief Sky Spirit that brought you back to your people. Now let us have a thanksgiving feast and rejoice.”
Gently the Four Wind Brothers passed over the Penobscot Indian village on their happy return to their mountaintop cave.
The story concerning the Bear family was revealed through a descendant of the original hero of the following tale. He owned a very old powder horn bearing an incised representation of his mother, who was a Bear, seated in the bow of a canoe travelling to the hunting grounds with her husband.
Many, many generations ago, a Penobscot, his wife, and their little son started out from their village to go to Canada. They were from Penobscot Bay, bound for a great council and dance to be held at the Iroquois village of Caughnawaga. They went upriver to the point where they had to make a 20-mile portage to reach another river that would take them to the St. Lawrence.
The man started ahead with the canoe on his back, leaving his wife to pack part of the luggage to their first overnight campsite. The little boy ran alongside of her. While she was busy arranging her pack, her son ran on ahead to catch up with his father.
The man had gone so far ahead, the boy became lost. The mother assumed the boy was with his father. When she arrived at the campground, they discovered that their son was with neither of them. They began a search immediately, but they could not find him.
The parents returned home to tell their story to their tribe. All of the men turned out for a wide search party, which lasted for several months without success. In March of the next year, the Penobscots found some sharpened sticks near the river. They concluded that the boy must be alive and had been spearing fish. Footprints of bears were seen, and they thought perhaps the boy had been adopted by a bear family.
In the village, there was a lazy man who did not enter into the search, but lay around idly. Everyone asked him, “Why don’t you help hunt for the boy? You seem to be good for nothing.”
“Very well, I will,” he replied. He went right to the bear’s den and knocked with his bow on the rocks at the entrance. Inside, a great noise arose where the father, mother, baby bear, and adopted boy lived. The father-bear went to the entrance, holding out a birch-bark vessel. The lazy man shot at it and killed the bear.
The mother-bear says, “Now I will go.” She took another vessel, held it out at the entrance, and also was killed. The baby bear did the same and was killed. All of the bears were laid out dead in the cave. Then the lazy man entered and saw the little boy terribly afraid and huddled in a dark corner, crying for his relatives and trying to hide.
The lazy hunter gently carried him home to the village and gave him to his parents. Everyone gave the lazy man presents: two blankets, a canoe, ammunition, and other good things. He became rich overnight.
The boy’s parents, however, noticed that their son seemed to be turning into a bear. Bristles were showing on his upper back and shoulders, and his manners had changed. Finally they helped him to become a real person again, and he grew up to be a Penobscot Indian like his father. He married and had children. Forever after he and all of his descendants were called Bears.
They drew pictures of bears on pieces of birch-bark with charcoal and left them at camps wherever they went. All of their descendants seemed to do this and declare, “I am one of the Bear family.”
From this legend we learn of the origin of fish, frogs, and turtles. A long, long time ago, Indians settled up the river. A Monster frog forbade these Indians the use of water. Some died from thirst. Their Spirit Chief, Gluskabe, came to help them. He saw how sickly his people seemed. He asked them, “What is your trouble?”
“The Monster is killing us with thirst. He forbids us water.”
“I will make him give you water,” Gluskabe replied. The people went with their Chief to see the Monster frog. The Chief said to the Monster, “Why do you abuse our grandchildren? You will be sorry for this treatment of our good people. I will give them water, so all will have an equal share of the water. The benefits should be shared.”
Gluskabe suddenly grabbed the Monster frog and broke his back. From thenceforth, all bullfrogs are broken-backed. Even then the Monster did not give up the water. So Gluskabe took an axe and cut down a large yellow birch tree, so that when it fell down, the yellow birch tree killed the Monster frog.
That is how the Penobscot River originated. The water flowed from the Monster frog. All the branches of the yellow birch tree became rivers, and all emptied into the main Penobscot River.
Now, all of the Penobscot Indians were so thirsty, some even near death, that they jumped into the river to enjoy the water inside and outside. Some of them turned into fish; some turned into frogs; some turned into turtles. A few human Penobscots survived. That is the reason they inhabit the whole length of the Penobscot River. This is how they took their family names from all kinds of fish, turtles, and other sea creatures.