David Moses Bridges, an artist and activist who worked to preserve Wabanaki culture and fought for the environmental rights of tribes in Maine and across North America, died Friday at his ancestral home at Pleasant Point. He was 54.

A Passamaquoddy, Bridges made canoes from birch bark and spruce roots, and was an award-winning basketmaker. His canoes, baskets and other works are in museums across Maine and around the country, including the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, where Bridges was a board member.

The Maine Arts Commission named him a Traditional Arts Fellow, the state’s highest honor in craft. In 2006, the First People’s Fund gave him its Community Spirit Award, a national honor in recognition of his work as an activist and traditional artist.

“For lack of a better term, he was a culture bearer, and he worked very hard at it for a very long time,” said Hugh French, director of the Tides Institute & Museum in Eastport. “He was very proud of his culture, and he worked to preserve that culture through his own work and through education. It was a tall order, and he went at it hard.”

Bridges was born on May 17, 1962, in Portland, grew up in South Portland and studied forestry at Unity College before moving to California. When he came back to Maine, he learned to build boats and became a master canoe maker and craftsman.

He suffered from sinus cancer, and spent much of the past year in Portland receiving treatment. As his health allowed, he worked at a friend’s workshop in South Portland. He told the Portland Press Herald last February that working with his hands helped keep him focused on something other than his illness. “Work keeps my mind off where I am,” he said. “If I think about where I am, I would be under the covers all day, just peeping out waiting for the inevitable. I don’t want to do that. Work keeps my mind in a happy place. I am trying to balance the reality by living today, one moment at a time.”

Theresa Secord, a Penobscot basketmaker and National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, said Bridges’ death reverberates across Maine and the country. “David was an inspiration to many, especially young male Wabanaki artists, and a draw to many of our events, as a truly gifted artist, teacher and culture bearer,” she said. “He will always be remembered among the brightest stars of our Wabanaki culture today. The Passamaquoddys have a song, and some of the words are, ‘We are the stars who sing, we sing with our light.’ David now sings with his light.”

Secord and Bridges followed similar paths in discovering and preserving their culture. Both grew up in South Portland in families that left the reservation for opportunities in southern Maine. Both returned to their tribal homes during the summer, where they learned traditional crafts from elders. He became a canoe maker, and Secord learned to make baskets and helped establish the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.

“I was proud to watch his parallel work in reviving and saving another nearly lost art form, and we often exchanged ideas and opportunities,” Secord said. “We respected and admired each other’s work, and he even made me the wooden form that I weave my corn baskets on.”

Bridges was active across his community, said Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, president of the Abbe Museum. As a museum board member, he helped guide internal discussions about a new strategic plan and the museum’s effort to reinterpret its collection and approach to storytelling from a Native perspective. He was a fierce environmentalist who understood his connection to the natural world, and worked with Maine tribes to protect their water rights. “He was always a voice for sovereignty,” she said. “He was a kind and loving artist and advocate for native issues. He never hesitated standing up when he needed to, and he always said what needed to be said.”

Bridges was the subject of an Andrew Wyeth painting in 2005, when Wyeth hired him to build a canoe. Bridges brought the birch for the project with him to the Wyeths’ private island and gathered spruce roots from the island. He worked on the project for several weeks, during which Wyeth painted a portrait of Bridges with his son, Tobias.

“Everybody on the island was involved in the process,” said Amy Morey, who manages the Wyeth Study Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. “He was a cheerleader for the rest of us. He showed us how to do things. It was a wonderful experience.”

In the painting, which is owned privately, Bridges has his arm around Tobias in a protective pose and is looking off into the distance as storm clouds form behind him. Wyeth called the painting “Threat.”

Bridges also was the subject of a documentary movie, “Rhythms of the Heart,” by Maine filmmaker Thom Willey.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia; and three children, Tobias, Sabattus and Natanis; as well as his parents, three siblings and many other relatives.

A traditional Native American Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at noon Wednesday at Beatrice Rafferty School in Pleasant Point.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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