Dawnland Handmade Creations opened at 278 Main Street over the weekend. The gift shop features handmade art by Maine's native communities. Credit: Courtesy of Maria Girouard

OLD TOWN, Maine — Opening a new business in a struggling downtown during a global pandemic was something of a leap of faith for Maria Girouard.

The Penobscot Nation historian and artist has dreamed of opening her own shop for decades and despite the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, everything seemed to fall into place this year.

Storefronts began opening up downtown — along with a renewed effort to revitalize the city’s economic center — and Girouard wanted to help the cause.

She had been saving money for a vacation but with the pandemic raging on, she put her travel plans on hold and instead used the funds to start Dawnland Handmade Creations.

Native ornaments sold at Dawnland Handmade Creations. Credit: Courtesy of Maria Girouard

“It was just a matter of seeing the ‘for rent’ sign in the window,” she said, though she hadn’t anticipated things to come together as smoothly as they did in the months leading up to the grand opening on Friday, Dec. 4.

“I really didn’t know what to anticipate. I felt like I was sort of flying by the seat of my pants,” she said.

The new store at 278 Main St. is part art studio, part gift shop and features handmade crafts by Maine’s Native American communities such as paintings, beaded jewelry, unique Christmas tree ornaments and more.

The store’s name is a tribute to native culture, as well. The term “Wabanaki” collectively refers to the four native tribes of Maine and translates to “land of the dawn” or “the dawnland.”

Growing up on Indian Island, Old Town is very much home to Girouard. “It really felt exciting to me to offer something to the downtown’s revitalization,” she said.

She hopes Dawnland Handmade Creations will meet a few needs of Old Town’s native and non-native communities. “I kind of view this [store] as a social entrepreneurship in that we are offering a solution to a social issue.”

Many Penobscot and Passamaquoddy artists who normally sell their crafts at large gatherings are facing significant income losses because of the pandemic. For many native artists, creating is an act of healing, Girouard said.

With the new store, Girouard can support local native artists by selling or showcasing their work to the greater Old Town community.

The store is aligned with Penobscot Nation’s philosophy of collectivism — which was a big personal motivator for Girouard. “There are core cultural values which have sustained us for millennia,” she said. “A major cultural value was to share and to not be greedy, more specifically … by being in a collective [and] communal way together, we look out for one another and everyone does well.”

Before her store plans took off, Girouard often fantasized about what the shop would be and how it could help enhance the native community’s roots in Old Town.

“I’d go out walking and start playing out the scenario of opening a shop,” she said. “There’s no shops or anything that represents Penobscot culture.” In that way, Girouard said she felt like opening Dawnland Handmade Creations was filling a void in Old Town.

Down the road, Girouard also aspires to host painting classes, beading workshops and other native cultural activities at the shop.

While the store only opened for part of the weekend, Girouard said she saw a steady stream of customers and the public’s response has been positive so far. People from both the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes who knew Girouard through her educational outreach showed up to support the new venture.

One couple even made a trip up from Skowhegan after hearing about the shop from a mutual friend.

“It far exceeded my expectations,” Girouard said of the store opening.

Dawnland Handmade Creations will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays only, due to the coronavirus pandemic. People can learn more about the shop via Facebook.