BAR HARBOR — Master craftsman David Moses Bridges, an award-winning artist receiving national attention for his skill, works with birch bark to make shelters, canoes, traditional containers and adornments as a means of artistic expression and a way to continue the traditions of his Passamaquoddy culture.

Originally from the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation, also known as Sipayik, near the Canadian border, Bridges and his wife Patricia Ayala now live in Bar Harbor, at least when they’re not traipsing to Bolivia to see her family or traveling for Bridges’ outreach work and exhibitions.

The Passamaquoddy are part of the Wabanaki nation, going back 12,000 years, and include the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, the Maritimes and Quebec.

Bridges, a slender man with a playful smile, learned from his elders, especially his great-grandfather, Sylvester Gabriel, who died in 1972 at age 86.

“He was the last of a long line of builders, 3,500 years of tradition that was rapidly diminishing in the early 20th century,” Bridges said recently.

Every year when the ice breaks in April, Bridges gathers winter bark and scouts for summer bark, then digs up spruce roots and cedar. In the summers, he constructs canoes. In winter, he creates birch baskets and panel etchings. The schedule is interspersed with educational programs, exhibits and conservation work that take him throughout the U.S. and into the Canadian Maritimes.

“Because it’s such a rare set of skills, it’s very interesting to museums and schools to talk about the Wabanaki people, to talk about the natural world and how people got by, way back in the day,” he said.

As a construction and artistic material, birch bark is a defining aspect of Passamaquoddy culture, he said.

“Because of the rigorous and varied demands of our environment, our canoes became the most highly refined of all the bark canoe building cultures, very large and very sturdy craft,” he said.

Education about Wabankai culture is important in an age when much traditional art is threatened, he said.

“We get to talk about the use of raw materials, sustainable practices—things that I think are important for people to hear,” he said. “One thing I don’t want to do is trivialize what it means to be a Wabanaki person. I’m very proud of the efforts of my family and community to ensure a future. To me, it’s very important to hang onto the traditions that place us,” he said.

“Utilizing raw materials—that was a big part of our ancestors’ life. That connects me to our ancestors’ way of thinking. To build a canoe, to build a birch bark basket, you have to understand the forest. You have to be able to walk across the land and see its value, not just as a way to make money, but as a way to exist, as a way to educate young people,” he said.

Ultimately, his programs also emphasize the fact that the Wabanaki haven’t disappeared.

“We’re still here,” he said. “My community at Sipayik is in the same place it was in 1604 when Samuel de Champlain sailed into Passamaquoddy Bay; this is our ancestral homeland, we speak our language, we remain closely related to our traditions. Sometimes I think people tend to forget that, or maybe never learned that in the first place,” he said.

“They read about us in the newspapers and some seem a bit surprised that we’re exercising our sovereignty. I think it’s important to remind people that we come with the territory,” he said.

“In our 410-year history of treaty-making with many governments, we always maintained our hunting and fishing rights, never relinquishing our right to travel and gather in our ancestral homeland. Governments have come and gone throughout the existence of the Wabanaki people, and what we now call Maine has seen many changes. But the one constant throughout these changes has been our presence.”