Arts and Leisure

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.

Sensational Success

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.

Sisters

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 2020.

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