Moving into the second summer of our North American fur trade NSF-funded project (DISES #2109168), we started to focus more on stakeholder engagement. For the past two years, we have been generating preliminary data surrounding the North American fur trade by sequencing modern and ancient furbearer DNA, piecing together historical food webs, and reviewing historical trapping records. Summer 2022 prioritized community engagement through workshops and stakeholder engagement events, where we could contextualize our data and form interdisciplinary questions. From excavating an archaeological shell midden with the University of Maine to speaking with trappers at the biggest gathering in the eastern United States about what we have learned about mink, muskrat, and beaver over the past two years, the summer was well spent.
To kick off the summer Drs. Alexis Mychajliw, Courtney Hofman and I visited the University of Maine’s archaeological field school held in Machias, Maine. The field school hosts both undergraduate and graduate students who spend the month of June excavating a nearby shell midden. Shell middens are of high cultural and ecological significance. By studying the contents and levels of the midden (older material at the bottom, younger on top) we can piece together stories of the land and its people. Unfortunately, sea level rise and increased storm severity has been eroding middens in the Gulf of Maine. The Maine Midden Minders program is devoted to monitoring the loss of middens in Maine. Every year, more and more material is washed into the ocean, which makes excavation pressing.
The field school is normally led by Dr. Bonnie Newsom, citizen of the Penobscot Nation and assistant professor of anthropology and archaeology at UMaine, but unfortunately, an injury kept Bonnie away from the field site. Two PhD candidates, Jason Brough and Emily Blackwood stepped in and ensured that the students could continue to excavate.
My time at the field school was brief: I gave a guest lecture on the morphological and biochemical work I had done on sea mink. Some of the specimens were excavated from the field school site. The students had come prepared by reading several papers on Maine archaeology and we discussed the field’s dark past and how many of the sea mink bones in museums had been stolen from the land and its people. We talked about the ways we were actively healing this wound by working with Wabanaki representatives, learning the Passamaquoddy language as part of the field school, and considering the work we were doing as a privilege and as a way to empower Indigenous people. And, exhausted after a long day in the sun, the students turned in early.
June and July were spent writing papers and articles, visiting the mammalogy collections at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and taking an iDigBioCourse on natural history museum specimen digitization. All of this was in preparation for the work we were to do in August. First up: Isles of Shoals Fur Trade Workshop.
Ten collaborators stood on the wooden dock at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, taking rapid COVID tests and meeting one another for the first time in person. Shevenell Webb, the furbearer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife arrived with Tom Berube, one of our trapper collaborators from Maine. Alexis, Courtney, and I had visited Tom at his taxidermy workshop last summer on our road trip through Maine (see Sea Mink Stories Part 1) and he and I had spoken many times since. Bonnie arrived, our resident archaeologist, and introduced us to John Dennis, member of the Mi’kmaq tribe and fluent speaker. He had driven three hours from Presque Isle to Bangor the day before, and three more hours from there to Portsmouth. Courtney had brought Karissa Hughes, a technician at the ancient DNA lab at Oklahoma University, and Sara Williams, an undergraduate from OU. She and Alexis’s student, Elizabeth Austin, were traveling directly from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where they had spent the summer sorting through Maine midden material looking for mink, muskrat, and beaver bones. Together, we brought a variety of perspectives, priorities, skills, knowledge, and experience to the Isles of Shoals.
We met for three days at the Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, where we discussed our preliminary work on the fur trade project. We were split into groups to form new research questions, brainstorming the datasets we would use, and who needed to be included on the project. We wanted to determine what deliverables we would give back to the communities. What school curriculum would fit where, how we could make brochures for public lands, how we could repatriate data and empower Indigenous communities. It was such a gift to be on Appledore Island with people who care so deeply for the systems we study. Muskrats seemingly as big as cats scampered across the paths on the island, we swam in the frigid Gulf of Maine, and shared our meals looking East, across the Atlantic. While we were on the Isles of Shoals, we considered the legacies present: Indigenous occupation, the process of colonization, and modern conservation and collaboration.
Our collaboration provided steps forward and inspiration to continue working on this project. A student account of the experience was featured in the Conservation Paleobiology Network’s newsletter.
We left the Isles of Shoals refreshed, and I headed to the next stop in my sea mink summer: the New England Trappers Weekend in Bethel, Maine. When I arrived Thursday morning, the first day the campground opened (which was, in fact, the property of a prominent Maine trapper, Niel Olson). The backyard quickly filled with campers, tents, tables, and vendor booths selling everything from historical trapping equipment to wooden bowls and rustic perfumes. I was there to meet trappers and make friends with stakeholders in today’s fur trade. Over the course of the day, I filled two pages of my notebook with the names and contact information of trappers interested in participating in our furbearer genetics study. I caught up with friends I had made at previous events (the Maine Trappers Association Annual Rendezvous, the Vermont Rendezvous, and the spring fur auctions). We discussed the state of furbearer populations and health, what they expected to trap, and their questions for our research. I came away with a pocketful of names I could call on to help us collect more tissue for genetic analysis. And I left many business cards and a face folks could pair with the project.
The next week saw me driving out of western Maine and back downeast. This time, I was headed to the Schoodic Institute for a week-long workshop on archaeology in Acadia National Park led by Dr. Newsom. The goal of the workshop was to bring more equitable education into Acadia National Park, by inviting Wabanaki speakers to inform the production of educational material such as signage, pamphlets, and place names. The days were filled with artifacts, or gifts as Dr. Newsom calls them, discussion, and connection.
I drove home to Islesboro and again rounded out my summer by working on the schooner Mary Day. After a long summer spent working with sea mink, midden material, and the people for whom it was significant, I was excited to share my work with my own community. I have sailed on Mary Day since 2017 and returning to work another few weeks in the summer always feels like a homecoming. I relished the sun, the salty waves, and the good company. Passengers were fascinated by the stories I had to tell of the sea mink, and as they listened, they gazed past the ship’s rail and out to the islands that dot the coast, imagining the sea mink swimming through the seaweed, as I had done a hundred times before. And where should we anchor for the night on one of the trips? None other than Mink Island in Penobscot Bay. The first mate, breathless with excitement for me, asked, “Think there are minks out there?”
“Could be!” I said. “Or maybe there were at one point!”
“What about sea minks? You think they could have been out there?” After all that I had told him about archaeology, extinction, and sea minks, he was giddy.
“Absolutely,” I said, staring at the little island, hosting a thick stand of spruce trees that stretched to the rocky shoreline. “They would have loved it here.”