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(Includes Penobscot Bean-Hole Beans creation/recipe)
Compiled by Snow Owl September 2004

Penobscot Indian Nation Flag


Please note: In the 1600s and 1700s and a remaining few in the 1800s, Abanaki survivors of war in the ME, NH, and VT areas were periodically taken in by our people. We cannot emphasize enough though, that anybody claiming Abanaki ancestry today is IN NO WAY neither associated with our people, nor represent our beliefs, culture, or spirituality. We do not support people of the new age and their continued appropriation, commercialization, and devaluation of Native heritage, culture, ritual, and sacredness.

Barry Dana, penawahpskewi sakama
Current Penobscot Chief in 1999

(Below is an excerpt from an interview with Barry Dana by John Clock of the Boston Globe in 2000. I believe this question and its answer is very important to all of us: Native Americans and non, alike. Snow Owl)

Question: Do non-Natives over romanticize Native Americans?

Answer: There are a lot of non-Natives who look at Natives as saviors of spirituality for humankind, and they bring to the discussion their concept of what we're supposed to be. But in reality, we may have progressed too far from their romanticized concept of what we're supposed to be. Even the people who look at Native spirituality and culture who are our greatest advocates sometimes need to be reeducated. I'm just human, just a man. I've got five kids, I've got these responsibilities, and I can't be your guru. I can't take you into the woods and enlighten you.
Barry Dana, Chief Penobscot Indian Nation
John Glock, Boston Globe - 2000

Penobscot Indian Basket
Twisted Splint Ash Porcupine Basket
Peabody Essex Museum

The Penobscot, closely tied with the Passamaquoddy of today, were originally closer to the Abenaki who once inhabited large parts of Maine. The Penobscot were hunters, trappers, fishermen and gatherers. The Penobscot Algonquin language was the same as that of the Abenaki.
In the 19th century, much of the Penobscot traditional hunting lands was sold without their consent and they were forced to rely on other means of subsidence such as farming, basket making and canoe building at which they excelled.

A Chief's Collar(Red wool, glass beads) Mid-Nineteenth Century Penobscot Indian
In 1972 the Penobscot joined the Passamaquoddys and the Maliseets in the Passmaquoddy v. Morton massive land claim settlement which led to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act giving them federal recognition and a settlement for millions of dollars to purchase trust lands. They currently own 315 acres on the Indian Island Reservation near Old Town, Maine. They also own nearly 200 islands in the Penobscot River, more than 55,000 acres of trust land in Penobscot County, and more than 69,000 acres of fee-simple land. About 1/4 of their more than 2,000 members live on their reservation.
The Penobscot tribe, together with the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Abenaki Indians, were once members of the old Wabanaki Confederacy, enemies of the Iroquois. These allies from the eastern seaboard region spoke related languages, and "Abenaki" and "Wabanaki" have the same Algonquian root, meaning "people from the east."

The Penobscot are not affiliated with the Abenakis today, and distance themselves from the Abenaki of New England.

There are 3000 Penobscot Indians now, most of whom live in Maine.

Chief Big Thunder - Penobscot
 Photograph by Frank Loring
Members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Penobscot Indians were longstanding enemies of the Iroquois, particularly the Mohawk. This led them to side with the French and Algonquins in the costly war against the English and Iroquoians.

The English paid out bounties for dead Penobscots, but it was European diseases (especially smallpox) that really decimated their nation, killing at least 75% of the population.

Still angry with the British, the much-reduced Penobscot tribe supported the Americans in the Revolutionary War, and in reward for picking the winning side they were permitted to stay on reservations in their native Maine, where they and their Passamaquoddy allies live to this day.

Recently the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians--despite formidable harassment from white neighbors--successfully argued that their treaty rights had been violated, and in 1980 received a settlement of $81 million for land that was illegally stolen from them.

The Penobscot tribe was able to buy back some of their ancestral lands, and today they are a sovereign nation working to maintain their traditions, language, and self-sufficiency.

Clara Paul, Penobscot Indian Traditional Clothing of the 1800s
Unknown Photographer Source


 So What Are Bean-Hole Beans?
The early Native Americans in Maine (the Penobscot Indians, according to one source) cooked in holes in the ground for hundreds of years. The early settlers learned to make a special baked bean dish from the Penobscots. The beans are so good that people still go to the trouble to dig fire pits and bury bean pots overnight to cook them.

How Do You Make a Bean Hole?

We hired Stuart Mailman, of Brewer, Maine, an experienced bean-hole bean maker
to oversee the making of the beans. He brought several volunteers
with him to prepare the hole, build the fire and bake the beans.
I dug a pit about thirty inches deep and put a cast iron manhole cover in the bottom. Then I lined the sides with cast-iron wheelswindow-sash weightsrocksand finished the top with bricks. Now I can fire it up with a couple of basket loads of wood for two, two-and-a-half hours, then shovel it out, put the beans in [covering them with coals and dirt to seal the hole], and cook them from 12 to 20 hours. (Robert Campbell of Glenburn, Maine, quoted by the Maine Folklife Center website.)
After the pit is dug, they chose stones to line the bean-hole.
Basically, you dig a pit deep enough to hold both a healthy batch of burned-down coals and a large, cast-iron Dutch oven. It helps if you line it with stones or bricks or other creative items to keep the heat in. Build a hardwood fire with lots of wood and let it burn for hours till you have the hole about three-quarters full of coals. This will take a good long time.
The fire needs to burn about half a day
to build up enough coals to cook the beans.
At the appropriate time, you'll shovel out some of the coals, put the pot of beans into the hole, shovel the coals back in to completely surround the pot, then cover it over with dirt until it is completely buried. Watch to ensure that no steam is escaping; if you see steam escaping from the hole, add more dirt and pack it in more tightly.
The beans are soaked overnight and parboiled for about one hour.
They are then rinsed and placed in the pot with salt pork, onions, molasses,
maple syrup, mustard, salt and pepper and then covered with water.

Cooking times vary from recipe to recipe, but six hours is a commonly mentioned cooking time, as is leaving the beans in the hole overnight.
The pot is placed in the bean hole and covered with coals.
The many recipes I found on the Web vary only a little, using the same basic ingredients and techniques. The one involving a "bean bean pot" seems to be representative, so I'll use it here.
The pot is buried with earth. No smoke should escape when through.
2 quarts dry beans (see below for discussion of types of beans to use)
1 large onion, sliced
salt pork or bacon (about a pound)
1 cup dark molasses
water (enough to cover the beans)
Parboil the beans until the skins wrinkle. Drain off the water.
The beans are covered with dirt and a piece of plywood
and left to bake for about 16 hours.
Slice the onion and lay half the slices across the bottom of the bean pot. Pour in half the beans. Add the remaining onion slices in another layer and place a layer of slabs of salt pork or bacon on top of that. Add the remaining beans.
Pour the cup of molasses over the top of the beans and add enough water to cover the beans.
Other sources indicate that the recipe should include maple syrup, dry mustard, salt and pepper, and butter. At the end, I'll give you links to these complete recipes so you can choose for yourself.
The most commonly quoted recipe also mentions placing a wet dishtowel over the top of the uncovered bean pot before putting on the lid. Pushing the lid down hard should then seal the bean pot securely, preventing the lid from sliding around and perhaps letting some ashes or dirt into the pot. Obviously, you should do whatever it takes to get a good tight seal on the bean pot.
The consensus of the sources I found indicates that yellow-eye beans are the best for this particular dish, though many other varieties are mentioned. White pea beans are a common ingredient of New England baked beans. Others mention great northern beans, Jacob's Cattle beans, soldier beans, and other varieties. Yellow-eye beans, however, are the overwhelming favorite.
In Maine, bean-hole beans are the stuff of folklore. Families have long traditions surrounding the beans and the family bean holes. Recipes are jealously guarded and bean holes are kept and used for decades.
-Robert Campbell of Glenburn, Maine

"Probably forty years ago I started working on the bean recipe and it's changed, it's evolved over the years and I think I've got it right now exactly where I want it. And I can't think of another thing I can possibly do. One of the major changes I made was in the kind of mustard that I use. I got away from using the powdered, prepared mustard, dry mustard if you will, and I went to use the liquid mustard produced by Ray's Mustard Mill in Eastport, and it's done wonders for the beans. And now I have to buy it by the gallon. I really do. But it took a long time to develop that. It's their factory mustard, the one they put in sardine cans for sardines.
"It seems to be where people like it and I like it. It's not a sweet bean. It's got smoked ham hocks, garlic, molasses, your traditional additives. But garlic, good smoked ham hocks, salt pork, and molasses, mustard. Big secret. I don't think I'm going to change that recipe. I really don't. Oh, it's a beauty.
"I love onions, I ... I don't cut back on the onions at all. I use a couple of medium onions per 2 pounds or one great big one and anywhere from a quarter pound  to a half pound of salt pork..."
"...Use a fairly large smoked ham hock, indescribable flavor. And Beans in Bangor makes probably the best hocks I've ever come across. I have to put them away in quantity in the summer time to be sure I have them. You really have to because everybody bakes beans in the summer time, so your good products, you need to know that, get them ahead of time."
-Robert Campbell of Glenburn, Maine

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