IPinCH Conversations / Bonnie Newsom on Penobscot Intellectual Property

By Julie Woods

Bonnie Newsom is a member of the Penobscot Nation and President of Nutalket Consulting, a Native American-owned and operated small business that blends archaeology and heritage preservation consulting with Native American art and jewelry design. 


Bonnie holds a B.A. in Anthropology and an M.Sc. in Quaternary Studies from the University of Maine. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is also Chair of the Repatriation Review Committee for the Smithsonian Institution and is the first Wabanaki woman to serve as a Trustee for the University of Maine System. Bonnie previously served for ten years as Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Penobscot Nation. 

Bonnie led the Penobscot Nation IP Working Group team in the IPinCH-supported project, Developing Policies and Protocols for the Culturally Sensitive Intellectual Properties of the Penobscot Nation of Maine, which has now published its final report. The project developed tribal protocols, tools, and organizational structures to address IP issues related to archaeology and heritage-based places. 

Julie Woods (JW): How did you get involved with archaeology and historic preservation? 

Bonnie Newsom (BN): When I was an undergrad I started off as a social work major because I wanted to do something service-oriented, but I soon realized it wasn’t a good fit for me. I just didn’t see myself doing social work and I took an Intro Anthropology course with Cynthia Keppley Mahmood. She was doing work among the Sikhs. We got to know each other [and] she said “You could do a lot of good for people in your community if you pursued a career in anthropology, gave the community a voice in the field.” So that’s kind of how I came into it. I definitely came into the discipline to give marginalized people a voice. There were no Indigenous archaeologists in Maine at all. A few folks had participated in fieldwork and there were some in the Anthropology Program but nobody from the Maine tribes was doing archaeology professionally at the time. It was about 1993, maybe 1994. Now I’m pleased to say that we have a number of Native people who are going down that path. At the time I think Native students were looking more towards ways to help the community in areas of education, health, business. I don’t think people in general often make the connection that public service can happen through archaeology and anthropology as well. So that’s how I came into the profession and that’s what drives my work. For me, I’m most proud of building a program at Penobscot Nation and being able to pass that on to another Penobscot who has come up through the ranks. I would consider making the discipline more visible in the community as one of my legacies, but also point out to others in the discipline that we as Indigenous people are wholly capable of doing this ourselves. So I’m hoping that’s what I leave behind.

JW: How did you get involved in the IPinCH project?

BN: I had a problem while I was serving as Penobscot Tribal Historic Preservation Officer with information management and information sharing particularly around Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Through my connections at UMass, mainly you and Martin (Dr. H. Martin Wobst), we collectively came up with a proposal to address some of those concerns. It was very timely because the issues were real and visible at the time and our cultural department was also initiating a process to address community-based research as well.

JW: Is there anything you want to say about how outside partners should approach communities about assisting with projects that are important to the community? 

BN: Ideally there is some sort of research strategy in place at the community level that asks “What are the things we want studied and what kind of research needs to take place and how does it take place in our community?” But, getting to that point is challenging because there are a lot of different perspectives. For me, one of the biggest things that somebody from the outside can do for a community is to facilitate that process of having the community establish their own research agenda. Rather than say “I have an idea for a paper or project, want to collaborate?” it’s more like “OK, let’s figure out how to develop a research agenda for the community,” and then when people do approach the community, they have some guidelines or direction for projects. It’s very frustrating when somebody has a really great idea, but it’s an outsider’s agenda. Working with communities in that way to identify what they’re interested in and what would help heal their communities, help to decolonize them…I think our work moved us in that direction. 

JW: I know the project changed and morphed for lots of reasons. Was it a good process in retrospect?

BN: I think it was better than I anticipated. The whole notion of bringing together different departments and forming the working group was great. I attribute much of that process to the great thinking of James Francis, our cultural director. I didn’t really envision that going into it but I think given the way the community is structured and how our departments are structured it worked out well. Originally, I envisioned a basic community focus group process but what came out of it was a whole process that was endorsed by tribal leadership and was a product of multiple departments. It went way beyond what I had envisioned. The process was much better than I had envisioned initially.

JW: Do you think there was something different about this project that allowed it to go beyond what you envisioned? 

BN: It’s the people. It’s always the people who are involved. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with people who are really great thinkers. They volunteered to be part of it. They were completely dedicated and very thoughtful, so I guess that’s what I attribute it to. It’s the people that made it successful. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the right click, you know. Sometimes things fall into place in ways that you may not expect them to. I think that’s what happened with this group. We worked really well together and maybe that’s because it was primarily us doing the work and talking about things that we hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about before. I’ve always wanted to create a tribal think tank of sorts to really take on some of these tough issues around sovereignty and rights and some of the major problems that we’re facing. I wish we had more opportunities to think collectively and talk through and strategize about how to address some of our challenges. We have some really smart, exceptionally talented thinkers in our communities. I think we need to harness that intellectual energy better. In my opinion, and based on my experience with the [Tribal IP] working group, something like that is most effective if it materializes from within the community as opposed to outside of it. 

JW: Is the IP Working Group still intact?

BN: I think intellectually we are and we are all still committed. However, since the IP project has wrapped up it’s been challenging to keep up the momentum. I hope it will continue. It comes down to the issues of sustainability and the community’s ability to continue with this work when we have so many other things that we are trying to accomplish. Communities need people who can devote the time to champion these kinds of efforts. I just don’t know how best to make them permanent fixtures within communities without some resources to support the work. The life cycle of grant-supported work is fragile and that’s a real problem communities face across the needs spectrum. Understanding how some communities have sustained IPinCH-supported projects once the funding has been exhausted would be good work for IPinCH to think about and share with all CBI teams.

JW: Can you tell me a little about the other people that were part of the Penobscot IP Working Group? Did their concerns stem from being members of the community or from their roles within the community in natural resources or other areas?

BN: I think it was a combination of the two. I think everybody in the group cares deeply that things are not misappropriated. I think that’s just personal on everybody’s part and that’s what I believe motivated most folks to participate and continue on. I know there are some professional interests as well, be it legal, IT, natural resources, etc. There is no doubt in my mind that if I need to reconvene the group for whatever reason, they would be there. They believe strongly in protecting our culture. I know that. So there’s ...definitely a strong desire on their part to protect our identity and culture and of course that’s going to intersect with their professional goals and responsibilities as well. 

JW: I was just looking at the Project Summary and under ‘what lessons about good research practices emerged’ there [are] a couple points I’d like to talk about. The first, “never assume to know what it is like to be a Penobscot or an Indigenous person if you’re not a member of that community” comes up in a couple of places. The second is “researchers must respect the researched community and have empathy for past indiscretions.” Could you give an example when these kinds of things come up today even with all of the knowledge out there about past indiscretions?

BN: One thing that comes to mind immediately is language. I think when an academic dedicates a career to an Indigenous language, there appears to be a tendency to portray oneself as an authority. But often what they’re lacking is the cultural context. So what they are getting is words, but they’re not getting the cultural experience that goes along with those words. So sometimes people may infer what it’s like to be Penobscot because of words. You can’t do that. That’s what immediately comes to mind. I don’t want to single out linguists, though. I realize they understand the importance of language and context as do other social scientists. However as scholars, I think it’s really important to be humble about our knowledge. I also think that sometimes while researchers may be good intentioned, sometimes they assume something is best for the community when in reality it may not be. That’s a delicate one for researchers to watch. I liked our relationship with UMass. You and Martin were very supportive but not intrusive. And that was so refreshing, Julie. You didn’t make any claims to any of the research. You were there to offer assistance when we needed it. You all took a very hands-off approach. It allowed us to go through that process on our own, so I think people/researchers need to hear that. 

JW: I got a lot out of it, so much. But I was feeling bad about how difficult it was to get going and how the intentionality of the project seemed to change when we were negotiating the agreements with different institutions. The words kept changing and different lawyers got involved and it became an institutional power struggle.

BN: Yeah. There were many times when I wanted to throw in the towel and say “This isn’t worth it,” but I’m glad I didn’t. We did a great a piece of work. I think everybody in the working group would agree that we did a great piece of work and it was worth it. Had you asked two months after signing on I probably would have said “No, it’s not worth it,” but sometimes perseverance pays off. I think that we did make some good changes, albeit small…we enlightened people and I think that’s important.

JW: You definitely enlightened me and others at IPinCH too. Bonnie, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with me and the IPinCH community and thank you again to the Penobscot IP Working Group for all of their hard work, and giving Martin and I an opportunity to assist the community with this wonderful project.

Julie Woods is a member of the Penobscot Community-Based Initiative team, as well as a Ph.D. Student and Research Assistant in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts.

This article was first featured in the IPinCH Newsletter, Vol. 6 (Fall 2014). 

Photos: Penobscot Birch Bark Canoe, a key cultural symbol central to many of the IP and natural resource preservation issues faced by the Penobscot Nation today; members of the Penobscot Nation Intellectual Property Working Group (photos courtesy Penobscot Nation, used with permission).