Maine

Lucy Nicolar Goes Far From a Maine Indian Reservation — And Then Returns

In January 1900, 17-year-old Lucy Nicolar traveled from her home on Indian Island in Penobscot County, Maine, to New York City where she attended a debate about immigration. Lucy, a Penobscot Indian, was also known as Princess Watahwaso.

lucy-nicolar-poolaw-1920

Lucy Nicolar Poolaw as Princess Watahwaso, from a 1920 publication.

The debaters concluded that immigration was dangerous and threatening to all true Americans. Lucy rose to speak:

I believe I am the only true American here. I think you have decided rightly. Of all my forefathers’ country, from the St. John to the Connecticut, we have now but a little island one-half mile square. There are only about 500 of us now. We are very happy on our island, but we are poor. The railroad corporations, which did their share of robbing us of our land, are now begrudging us half-rate fare. But we forgive you all.

The room fell silent. Then the president of the society announced there’d be no musical feature as the pianist was sick – unless someone volunteered. Lucy Nicolar sat at the piano, played selections from Chopin and sang a plaintive song that, according to a journalist, touched everyone in the room.

Princess Watahwosa would spend the rest of her life mixing entertainment with political activism.

Indian Island

Lucy Nicolar was born June 22, 1882, on Indian Island, Maine, the daughter of Joseph Nicolar and Elizabeth Joseph. Every summer, her family traveled to the resort town of Kennebunkport to sell baskets. Lucy and her sister performed in Indian dress for the tourists. In her late teens she started performing at public events such as sportsman's shows. 

During those performances, she came to the attention of a Harvard administrator who hired her as his assistant, took her into his household and gave her musical and educational opportunities in Boston and New York. In 1905, she married a doctor and moved to Washington, D.C. Eight years later they divorced, and Lucy moved to Chicago to study music.

Eventually she became a recording artist with Victor Records, performing adaptations of Indian songs such as By the Waters of Minnetonka and By the Weeping Waters. The company sent her on a national promotional tour. As Molly Spotted Elk did later, she acted out stereotypes of Indians while presenting classical European music. She performed on stage in traditional Indian dress, mixing opera arias with Native American songs. (You can hear her sing six Native American songs here.)

In 1917, Music News raved about a concert she gave in Chicago:

All the seriousness and reliability of her race (The American Indian) are hers and in addition she has individual charms and graces which maker her the peer of brilliant young womanhood of any Race and the superior of most.

Gifted with keen intelligence and musical ability she has added to the force of her natural heredity the style and finish which come from fine education and she stands today as a public entertainer possessing both intelligence and artistry of high order and -- as these are applied to a subject of rare appeal to the public she is extremely fascinating to every audience before which she appears.

In a review of her New York debut, the Music Courier reported, "Princess Watahwaso, A Full-blooded Penobscot Indian Mezzo-Soprano, scores a sensational success at her New York debut recital at Aeolian Hall, April 7, 1920."

Lucy Nicolar as Princess Watahwaso

Lucy Nicolar as Princess Watahwaso

Lucy Nicolar also toured as part of the Redpath Chatauqua Bureau, then the Keith vaudeville circuit. She married a lawyer who became her manager. He took all her money and fled to Mexico after the stock market crashed in 1929.

When vaudeville died, she returned to the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation with her husband Bruce Poolaw, a Kiowa entertainer from Oklahoma. They opened a gift shop -- a teepee 24 feet in diameter -- called it Poolaw's Indian TeePee and sold traditional Indian crafts. They also continued to entertain locally.

Lucy and her sister Florence campaigned to improve life for their people on the reservation, which stretched along the Penobscot River from Indian Island near Old Town to East Millinocket. They raised the educational standards for Penobscot children by gaining access to the public schools. They also persuaded the state to build a bridge to the island.

Lucy and Florence also demanded the right to vote for their people. When the state extended suffrage to the Penobscots in 1955, Lucy Nicolar cast the first ballot.

The Old Town Enterprise reported “The princess has done much for the uplift of her people during her public career, both locally and nationally."

Lucy Nicolar died at Indian Island on March 27, 1969, at the age of 87.

With thanks to Sifters: Native American Women's Lives (Viewpoints on American Culture) by Theda Perdue. This story was updated in 2017.

53 Comments

53 Comments

  1. Wendy Laffely

    Wendy Laffely

    January 12, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Who wants immigration reform ???

  2. Wendy Laffely

    Wendy Laffely

    January 12, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Who wants immigration reform ???

  3. Aliesha Bennett

    Aliesha Bennett

    January 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Amazing.

  4. Aliesha Bennett

    Aliesha Bennett

    January 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Amazing.

  5. Becki Savery

    Becki Savery

    January 12, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    my kind of gal…

  6. Becki Savery

    Becki Savery

    January 12, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    my kind of gal…

  7. Dora Compean

    Dora Compean

    January 12, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    Good history

  8. Dora Compean

    Dora Compean

    January 12, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    Good history

  9. Gail Bryce Driscoll

    Gail Bryce Driscoll

    January 12, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    A Mighty Girl indeed! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Ailton Nascimento

    Ailton Nascimento

    January 12, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    is true

  11. New England Genealogy

    New England Genealogy

    January 12, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    shared!

  12. Nancy Markey Gleason

    Nancy Markey Gleason

    January 12, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    This land is her land.

  13. Lori Foley

    Lori Foley

    January 12, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Amazing brave woman!

  14. Eleanor Griffin

    Eleanor Griffin

    January 12, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Amazing- sharing this…

  15. Ann Lunny

    Ann Lunny

    January 12, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Beautiful inside and out.

  16. Bobo Leach

    Bobo Leach

    January 12, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Fascinating story.

  17. Linda Davis

    Linda Davis

    January 12, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Beautiful remimner of our history. Thank you for the post.

  18. Debra Moore Alie

    Debra Moore Alie

    January 12, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Incredible woman . She’s definitely on my “spend the morning fishing with an interesting person list”

  19. Nancy FitsEmons Rivers

    Nancy FitsEmons Rivers

    January 12, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Amen to the truth!

  20. David Dunn

    David Dunn

    January 12, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Love this bold beautiful spirit!!!

  21. Linda Brayton

    Linda Brayton

    January 12, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    The perfect response!

  22. Leslie Burke Fernandes

    Leslie Burke Fernandes

    January 12, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Too bad our government didn’t listen to what she had to say..

  23. Robert Vincent

    Robert Vincent

    January 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    They never do.

  24. Tom Hendershott

    Tom Hendershott

    January 12, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Like your friend on the train, “I’m from America”.

  25. Joanne McDonnell

    Joanne McDonnell

    January 12, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    fierce!!!

  26. Dru Milligan

    Dru Milligan

    January 12, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    Very interesting

  27. Jenny Lynn Zbras

    Jenny Lynn Zbras

    January 12, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    When does the government ever listen?

  28. Mary K Davis Haidle

    Mary K Davis Haidle

    January 12, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Strong woman.

  29. Dee Doubleu Abbott

    Dee Doubleu Abbott

    January 12, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    I never read about her in My history books.

  30. Patricia Flinn McClary

    Patricia Flinn McClary

    January 12, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    We need more people like this

  31. Vicki Wolfe

    Vicki Wolfe

    January 13, 2014 at 11:36 am

    she has a look of determination on her beautiful face

  32. Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum

    Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum

    January 13, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Sounds like a great movie…

  33. Adele McVay

    Adele McVay

    January 13, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    What a woman, but, no, please don’t encourage Hollywood to rewrite her history!

  34. Martha Underwood

    Martha Underwood

    January 13, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    thanks for sharing and has it happened not a Hollywood film

  35. Michael Todd

    Michael Todd

    January 13, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Very interesting. I love her expression!

  36. Maureen Drennan

    Maureen Drennan

    January 13, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    She showed them right left and centre. Xxxxxxxx

  37. Steve Ranz

    Steve Ranz

    January 14, 2014 at 11:39 am

    One of the Unsung Heroes !!

  38. Lauren Thomas

    Lauren Thomas

    January 14, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    I must share

  39. Lori Lambert Mumaw

    Lori Lambert Mumaw

    January 14, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Awesome read! Thank you

  40. Phyllis Witt Payne

    Phyllis Witt Payne

    January 15, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Thank you Marty Fields Galloway, this was an incredible snapshot of history.

  41. Robin Boyd

    Robin Boyd

    June 22, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    My great great grandmother was Penobscot.

  42. Meg Smith

    Meg Smith

    June 22, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Beautiful

  43. Molly Landrigan

    Molly Landrigan

    June 22, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Loved this story. I think our government should be ashamed for the way we have always treated Native Americans….I know, I am!

  44. Cora Peirce

    Cora Peirce

    June 22, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    An honorable lady!

  45. Marshall Maguire

    Marshall Maguire

    June 23, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    Molly, the government that treated Native Americans poorly was way before our time. We have nothing to be ashamed of. The United States has done and continues to do all it can to treat all Americans equally.

    • Powhatan daughter

      November 26, 2014 at 7:20 pm

      Marahall, you have to be F***ing kidding me, or you have NO idea, that this government will not be happy,
      till every Native American is DEAD!!!!

  46. Cynthia Kennett-Robbins

    Cynthia Kennett-Robbins

    June 23, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. The story was very interesting and the music was unique and pretty. Your right, this is right up my alley !

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  51. Eric Nicola

    September 7, 2018 at 11:52 pm

    The top picture is not of Lucy Nicolar Poolaw. I am her great nephew, we see that photo pop up every so often, as far as we can narrow it down, it is of a Seneca or Oneida lady. We could be wrong at that too, but it is not our dear Aunt Lucy. No one ever listens to her family and takes it down. Shame.

    • Leslie Landrigan

      September 8, 2018 at 9:18 am

      Sorry, we thought we had taken it down. It’s been removed.

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