Brunswick historian known for research and friendship with native tribes dies at 95

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Nicholas N. Smith sits at his desk showing Native American artifacts. Photo courtesy of Wanda Morris

Brunswick scholar and ethnographer Nicholas N. Smith, 95, died last week, leaving behind the most extensive research on the Wabanaki tribe.

Smith has written over 60 articles and book chapters focusing on the history and culture of the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes.

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Wabanaki Alliance, called Smith a “trailblazer”.

He said that while many non-Natives thought of Native Americans in a historical context, “building tepees and wearing buckskins,” Smith viewed Native Americans as contemporaries and wanted to help preserve their history.

For more than half a century, Smith has researched tribes by living with them, engaging with their customs, documenting, sharing, and advocating for better tribal legislation.

Micha Pawling, an associate professor at the University of Maine, a friend and former colleague of Smith, said that in the 1950s and 1960s Smith would help translate treaties for the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes, bringing clarity to the documents. Pawling said Smith broke down barriers and formed lasting friendships with tribal leaders through mutual trust and respect.

Pawling recalled a trip he took with Smith and Smith’s late wife, Edyth, to Indian Township just before the pandemic, where they reconnected with the Passamaquoddy tribe. Pawling said it was typical to kiss older women and shake hands with older men, but when the tribe saw Smith, he received a very different reception. Pawling said the tribal elder who had known Smith since the 1950s pulled his friend closer so their foreheads could touch – an ancient greeting in many cultures to honor the heart and soul of another human being. .

“He didn’t treat people like subjects when he was doing his research. He treated them like humans and got a different layer of information from them that most researchers would miss,” said Donald Soctomah, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Soctomah met Smith while Soctomah served in the Maine Legislative Assembly from 1998 to 2010.

“He showed up at many public hearings to help the Passamaquoddy Tribe,” Soctomah said of Smith.

Smith was an active member of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick for 20 years.

“Nick was a man of faith whose passion for justice for our Indigenous brothers and sisters will be a lasting legacy,” St. Paul’s assistant rector Katie Holicky wrote in an email to her congregation.

“For me, he will always be remembered as a good friend,” Soctomah said. “A lot of times you have historians going out and getting information and it sits on a shelf. He shared the story with the tribe.

Not only did Smith live with local tribes, but he was invited to important Indigenous ceremonies and events, such as when Queen Elizabeth II presented a dedicated chalice to the Mohawk tribe in Ontario.

“I wanted to feel what their life was really like,” Smith told The Times Record in a 2007 interview.

Nicholas Neville Smith and Pat Paul at a 2012 birch bark canoe building workshop at Woodstock First Nation. Photo courtesy of Wanda Morris

Soctomah said one of the fondest memories he has of Smith occurred during Smith’s first visit to the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the 1950s. Upon arrival, Smith presented a child with an orange – which was hard to find in rural Maine at the time. To reaffirm Smith’s friendship with the tribe 70 years later, Soctomah arranged a meeting between Smith and the tribe, where the same child – now a tribe elder – gave Smith an orange in return.

A University of New Brunswick bibliographical sketch lists many of Smith’s major experiences as a researcher.

In 1963, Smith joined his friend Peter L. Paul of Meductic on a canoe trip down the Saint John River. The two traveled to New Brunswick, Canada, Indian Island and Old Town, where they lived with local tribes to help them in their mission to celebrate and preserve native history.

Working on Native American linguistics for many years together, the two men became close friends. Smith even named his daughter Wanda, after his colleague’s child, Pawling said.

A decade later, in 1974, Smith experienced life with Cree Indians hunting at Philip Voyageur’s Winter Bush Camp, a story he would later recount in his 2011 book Three Hundred Years in Thirty: A Memoir of Transition with the Cree Indians of Lake Mistassini”. ”

Smith earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Maine Orono in 1950 and later earned his master’s degree in library science in 1959 from Columbia University School of Library Service. After years of research and work as a library director in Watertown, New York, he retired in 1983 and returned to Maine to be closer to his daughter.

Never stopping in his research, in 2007 Smith received an honorary doctorate from the University of Maine for his fieldwork and archival research.

“Mr. Smith is recognized as a leader in the development of the field of Native American studies. His expertise has been instrumental in the efforts of several institutions, including the Huntington Free Library, Newberry Library, Fogler Library and the Abbe Museum, as they acquire, preserve, and interpret Wabanaki materials,” according to a UMaine diploma citation.

Smith was more than a historian; he was a friend, a husband and a father. Married to his wife Edyth for more than 60 years, Wanda Morris said his parents met while his father was working as a guide in Maine. She said the two bonded over a shared appreciation for birdwatching and would later embark on many research trips together.

Morris said that long after his father retired, he spent hours researching the library at Bowdoin College, and if he couldn’t go, “he would send me,” she said. said.

In recent years, Smith has begun distributing boxes of his repositories and research to necessary institutions for future generations to use.

“He still had a lot of work he wanted to do and accomplish. Now it’s my job to make sure this research gets to where it matters most,” Morris said.

Nicholas N. Smith lectures at the University of Maine Orono in 2006. Photo courtesy of Wanda Morris

Nicholas Neville Smith at 88, sifting through his research records in 2015. Photo courtesy of Wanda Morris

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