CODE RED: Climate, Justice & Natural History Collections

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Maine Historical Society (MHS) installed CODE RED: Climate, Justice & Natural History Collections from March 17 to December 30, 2023 in Portland, Maine. Curated by Tilly Laskey, MHS curator and Dr. Darren J. Ranco (Penobscot) Professor of Anthropology and Chair of Native American Programs, University of Maine.

Listen to the curators discuss CODE RED.

Advised by: Denise Altvater, Richard “Dick” Anderson, Andrew Beahm, Charlene Donahue, Gabriel Frey, Gal Frey, Bernd Heinrich, Doug Hitchcox, Avery Yale Kamila, Genevieve LeMoine, E. Christopher “Chris” Livesay, Bill McKibben, Jennifer Neptune, Mali Obomsawin, Jill Pelto, David Reidmiller, Lokotah Sanborn, and Frances Soctomah. Collaborators include: Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, Maine, Gray Herbarium at Harvard University, Edmund S. Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library, Bates College, The Hodgdon Herbarium, University of New Hampshire, Hudson Museum University of Maine, Lewiston Public Library, Lillian Nordica Association, Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum, Pejepscot History Center, Maine State Archives, Maine State Museum, Massachusetts Audubon, New England Botany Society, Northern Maine Museum, University of Maine Presque Isle, Portland Public Library Archives, Donald Soctomah, and Sunlight Media Collective.

Supported by: Elsie A. Brown Fund, Inc., Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust, Horizon Foundation, Inc., William Sloane Jelin Foundation, The Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust, Rines Thompson Fund, a component fund of the Maine Community Foundation, Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, and The Phineas W. Sprague Memorial Foundation.

View a 3-D virtual tour of CODE RED: Climate, Justice & Natural History Collections

The Portland Society of Natural History (PSNH) was one of America’s earliest natural history museums. Starting in 1836 it operated under various names in several Portland locations, and legendarily burned to the ground twice. PSNH merged with Maine Audubon in 1961, closed to the public in November 1970, and officially became part of Maine Audubon in 1972. PSNH staff spent years disbursing millions of items from the museum, library, and herbarium to institutions in Maine, and around the globe. Maine Historical Society holds the PSNH archives, but it took detective work to find the PSNH specimens. Reuniting them aims to put extinction, global warming, water contamination, and cultural representation into context.

The same centuries-old systems that legalized colonization of Indigenous Homelands also promoted scientific research, and collecting activities. The origins of natural history museums as places for White, educated men to study science places Indigenous peoples into a “primitive” past—ironically separating people from the very nature they were studying, and excluding diverse perspectives.

Indigenous science uses place-based understandings and care-taking strategies adapted over millennia to inform decisions about sustainable practices. Through self-determination, Indigenous peoples—who make up 4% of the earth’s population—have stewarded 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity in just 20% of the earth’s land base. If we are to find a way forward in this challenging and changing environment, Indigenous science and Indigenous peoples are central to finding climate solutions, and why we are prioritizing Wabanaki knowledge in CODE RED.

Humans have already fundamentally changed the earth, with the effects detailed in the United Nations’ 2022 report, Code Red for Humanity. Weather is changing so rapidly that much of this exhibition will be obsolete in a few months. Heat waves, wildfires, droughts and severe storms are more common. The Arctic is melting, and seas are rising. Supported by contributions from scientists and specialists across Maine, we hope visitors will find wonder in the old Portland Society of Natural History specimens, learn about past actions, and develop new strategies for building sustainable communities to navigate a new climate future.

Indigenous Science

Barry Dana's Turtle Island basket, Solon, 2016

Barry Dana's Turtle Island basket, Solon, 2016

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Indigenous science and traditional ecological knowledge is intimately tied to Indigenous peoples’ roles, responsibilities, and ecological caretaking. Based upon thousands of years of observation, generations of peer review, and active care-taking practices, Indigenous science systems create obligations of care not usually found in Western science. For example, Wabanaki teachings often require communities to care for the thing they have knowledge of—teachings related to sweetgrass require taking care of it so that it will take care of Wabanaki peoples. Methods of picking sweetgrass, used as medicine and in basketry traditions, leads to the proliferation of sweetgrass in following years. To know about sweetgrass creates an obligation to care for it. Because of these knowledge traditions, Wabanaki people continue to know and engage the non-human relations in their Homeland, despite colonial disruptions in active care-taking.

Indigenous science and connections to place are rooted in the fact that Indigenous people are tied to specific places and ecosystems—creation stories put them in this landscape. For Indigenous people, one creation story often cited by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people involves the Wabanaki cultural hero and creator Gluskabe shooting an arrow into a Brown ash (basket) tree, bringing forth the people and animals of that place/ecosystem into a river of life. As humans created in the locations of Wabanaki Homelands, whose “holy places” are here, not halfway around the world, care-taking responsibilities are critical to identity as Indigenous people.

Katahdin Arctic Butterflies

Western scientific practices include collecting, preserving, and storing specimens for research. Scientists and amateurs catch butterflies and prepare them in mounts or pin them to a background. Studying the preserved insects provides information for researchers to understand changes in butterfly wing shape over time, the genetics of extinct species, and sometimes even finding new species within the collections.

The Katahdin arctic butterfly is in the family Nymphalidae, a subspecies of the Polixenes arctic. They live in the arctic tundra from Alaska through northern Canada to Labrador. The Nymphalidae family includes satyr butterflies.

The Katahdin subspecies is listed as endangered. It is only found on the summit of Katahdin in Baxter State Park, an alpine environment where the Katahdin Arctic butterfly has existed over thousands of years. Warming temperatures could affect both the alpine plants and the butterfly’s existence.

Maine's Warming Climate
by David Reidmiller, PhD, Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Climate change affects all aspects of life across Maine. In the state’s forested regions, new pests and diseases pose risks to cherished ecosystems and commercially valuable timber, in part because of more hospitable conditions brought about by climate change. A warmer, wetter atmosphere increases the risk of flooding and erosion—threatening scores of communities nestled along the banks of Maine’s rivers, creeks, and streams. Ocean water levels have risen by more than eight inches in Casco Bay over the past century, and the rate of that sea level rise is increasing.

As a result, risks are only going to grow in the decades ahead to biodiversity hotspots, such as salt marshes, as well as important tourism, recreation areas, and critical infrastructure (e.g. wastewater treatment facilities) in the coastal zone. The waters of the Gulf of Maine are experiencing some of the fastest warming rates among any part of the ocean around the world. This poses risks to—and opportunities for—commercially valuable wild harvest fisheries and aquaculture farmers.

Climate impacts from other regions affect life here, too. Increasingly, frequent and intense wildfires in the Mountain West reduce air quality here in Maine, posing health risks to asthmatics and impeding outdoor recreation opportunities. The long-term trend of declines in Arctic sea ice cover is altering large-scale weather patterns that influence the conditions in Maine. Increasingly, extreme meteorological events like hurricanes or typhoons, droughts, and floods overseas can disrupt supply chains, increasing consumer costs for food, electronics, etc.

In Maine, as elsewhere, climate change means the past is no longer an accurate predictor of the future. It means Mainers are now experiencing and interacting with the natural world in ways that are unprecedented on human timescales.


Fancy basket by Hilary Browne, 2017

Fancy basket by Hilary Browne, 2017

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Wabanaki Nations, Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot, and other Tribal Nations in the region, like other Indigenous communities across the globe, will face an inordinate amount of impact from global climatic change. With these impacts already being felt, adaptation to new climate realities have already begun. For example, Moose are having trouble surviving the increased presence of winter ticks because of warmer winters, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous hunters are adapting to this new reality, as well as a shifting set of locations for harvesting fish and other game.

Climagration is when a community is no longer sustainable exclusively because of climate-related events and permanent relocation is required to protect people. While usually referred to the relocation of human beings, the same can be said about non-humans as well. Some climate models point to the fact that Maine will be too warm for Brown (basket) ash in 100 years—and the trees must move as well, away from Wabanaki people in Maine.

In the short term, climate change will also bring with it an increase of invasive species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), responsible for killing millions of ash trees in North America, and discovered in northern and southern Maine in 2018—threatening Wabanaki basketmaking
traditions in the coming decades.

Page navigation: Indigenous Science and Maine's Climate Page 1; The Portland Society of Natural History Page 2; Nature of Collecting and animal extinctions Page 3; Bird conservation Page 4; Pollination, Plants and Pesticides Page 5; Climate Change, Human Rights, and Foodways Page 6; Clean water, warming water Page 7; Anthropology and Natural History Museums Page 8

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