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Overlooked No More: Molly Nelson, Steward of Penobscot Culture

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In 1931, when the Penobscot dancer Molly Nelson arrived in Paris to perform at the International Colonial Exposition, she was pleasantly surprised. To win audiences in North America, she had learned, she had to resort to Native American stereotypes, like wearing a floor-length feathered headdress — and not much else. But in Paris, she found an enthusiastic, unbiased reception for her traditional tribal dances.

After the expo ended and the other members of her group, the United States Indian Band, returned home, she decided to stay.

“Maybe I am foolish, with no money, but hopes galore,” she wrote in her diary. “But I DO want to do something with my Indian dancing here in a serious artistic way. And I’m willing to take a great chance to accomplish it.”

Nelson, whose stage name at the height of her career was Molly Spotted Elk, was a Penobscot dancer from Maine who spent much of her young adult life performing both traditional and popular dances in vaudeville troupes, chorus lines, Wild West shows and nightclubs.

She was also a prolific writer who, over 40 years, kept diaries that give rare insight into the hardships faced by Indigenous women in the early 20th century. She also worked as a journalist during the Paris expo, writing a long account of her experiences for a Portland, Maine, newspaper.

“She played a dual role,” Bunny McBride, the author of “Molly Spotted Elk: A Penobscot in Paris” (1995), said in an interview. “She was on exhibition with other colonized people, yet she was also an observer who chronicled the event for a major newspaper back home.”

By several accounts, Nelson was a remarkable dancer and a bridge between Indigenous America and Western audiences. One journalist noted that she could perform traditional dances and popular ones with “equal grace.” In Paris, her audiences demanded encores.

Nelson mingled with artists and intellectuals, gave lecture-recitals at salons and museums and fell in love with a French journalist, Jean Archambaud.

In July 1939, the publishing house Paul Geuthner gave her an opportunity that she had long pursued: to publish her collection of Penobscot folk tales.

But that September — when promotional materials were set to circulate — the Nazi invasion of Poland threw France into war, setting off a series of events that would end Nelson’s book deal and upend her life.

She married Archambaud soon after Poland’s surrender and, aided by the philanthropist Anne Morgan, made plans to leave Europe. But she could not secure papers for her husband, and the next year, after Germany had invaded and occupied France, she left with their 6-year-old daughter, also named Jean, fleeing across the Pyrenees into Spain, largely on foot.

Nelson, right, padding a canoe on the Penobscot River in 1921 with her sister Apid.Credit…Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History, Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections, University of Maine, via Barbara Moore

The oldest of eight siblings, Mary Alice Nelson was born on Nov. 17, 1903, on Indian Island, the heart of the Penobscot nation about 15 miles northeast of Bangor, Maine. Penobscots called her Maliedellis (pronounced MAH-lee-DEL-us), which she shortened to Molly.

The Nelsons sustained themselves mostly by selling baskets, with her mother, Philomene, weaving and her father, Horace, collecting the raw materials. Horace would go on to serve as the tribal chief an the nonvoting Penobscot representative in the State Legislature.

As a girl, Molly showed an interest in tribal traditions, asking adults to tell her legends in exchange for doing chores. Revues and musical events were popular on the island, giving children opportunities to perform; in her first public performance she danced an Irish jig in a local contest. By the time she was a young teenager, she was earning dimes dancing for tourists.

To make even more money for her family, she left home at 15 to travel with a vaudeville act under the name Princess Neeburban, picking up various Indigenous dances along the way. She often felt torn between a love for her home and an insatiable curiosity about the larger world.

In 1924, on a tour of colleges with a company of Indigenous dancers, she was in Philadelphia when she became reacquainted with an anthropologist she had known from childhood. She left the tour and remained behind there to audit anthropology and literature classes for three semesters at the University of Pennsylvania. When she ran out of money, she joined her sister in a Wild West show headquartered on an Oklahoma ranch, where she worked as a waitress, danced and learned to perform on horseback.

Nelson soon moved to New York and started using the stage name Molly Spotted Elk. She modeled for artists between auditions and eventually joined the Fosters Girls, a chorus line that traveled to San Antonio for an extended run.

Nelson in 1928 wearing a floor-length feathered headdress, an example of the outfits she was made to wear to match audiences stereotypes of Native Americans.Credit…via Barbara Moore

When that run ended, Nelson returned to New York and made a name performing at nightclubs. When the screenwriter and naturalist W. Douglas Burden heard about her, he cast her in the starring role of “The Silent Enemy” (1930), a docudrama about a harsh winter faced by pre-Columbian Ojibwe in what is now Canada. Burden sought to cast only Indigenous actors and make a film without stereotypes. In addition to playing a lead role, Nelson also advised on hunting scenes and canoe building.

A silent film in an increasingly talkie era, “The Silent Enemy” flopped at the box office but was lauded for its relative realism and stunning scenes of animals in nature.

While Nelson aspired to act in other films, she found only a few bit parts. But her ambition to continue to perform set her on the road to Paris.

Some time after returning to the United States, she learned that her husband had died as a refugee in occupied France in 1941. Suffering from depression, she spent a year in a mental hospital. She lived the rest of her life on Indian Island, where she contributed to Penobscot research, made dolls and baskets and told stories to her community.

She died on Feb. 21, 1977, after a fall. She was 73. Her daughter died in 2011 at 77.

Nelson’s long-delayed collected legends, after years of work, were finally published in 2009 by the University of Maine. The collection, “Katahdin: Wigwam’s Tales of the Abnaki Tribe,” included a dictionary of terms with French and English translations. At the time, most Indigenous stories were passed orally from a storyteller to a white historian or anthropologist, making Nelson a rare example of an Indigenous documentarian.

“There’s a real difference in the voice, and there’s a real difference in certain emphases that she put on certain aspects of the stories,” John Bear Mitchell, a Penobscot storyteller and educator who knew Nelson, said of the collection in an interview.

“To hear them in her words,” he added, “is to hear them in her elders’ words.”

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