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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

On the First Light Learning Journey

Posted by | October 8, 2021 | Filed under: Opinion

It doesn’t yet seem right to wish one another, this weekend, a “happy Indigenous Peoples Day.” Though there has been some hard-won progress more recently, Native Americans still have much to be unhappy about. Until their communities are as healthy and prosperous as their White neighbors’, until access to their homelands is fully restored, a day in Indigenous Peoples’ honor can only ever elicit a weary nod on the long journey back from the edge of extinction.

A member of the Laudholm Trust board and I spent the past twelve months on the First Light Learning Journey, an intensive study of the beleaguered existence of Native peoples in the U.S. and Canada since colonization. The program, attended by representatives from more than 70 land trusts across our state, examines the terrible treatment of Wabanaki peoples by invaders and governments here in Maine. Though the original Wabanaki were not relocated to reservations out West, like so many other East Coast tribes, they were nearly erased in place. Although all 21 million acres of what is now called Maine were once the domain of the Wabanaki, the tribes currently legally steward only 0.01% of land in this state. Pandemics, guns, and settlement reduced hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people here to fewer than 10,000 today.

But they are still here, and persisting. The First Light program introduced us participants to generous, patient, and wise representatives from the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, and Abenaki tribes. They shared their personal and communities’ histories, challenges, fears, and hopes, and they awakened us to the debts we owe the first stewards of this land. But they also challenged us to think deeply: first about our own disconnection and traumatic history with the land and, only then, how we might move forward as healing and equal partners across this common ground.

The First Light program’s push to get us non-Natives to recognize our own disconnection from the land was profound. Most participants were immigrants or descendants of immigrants, uprooted from ancestral places relatively recently. Any local knowledge we may have had was reset when we re-established here. We new arrivals to these shores can learn so much from the Indigenous people that were here ahead of us. What can most of us truly claim to know of this North American continent — its animals, plants, rivers, and mountains — compared to the hundreds of generations who lived and thrived here before colonization? There is much we can learn, but first we must recognize and reckon with what we did.  

Acknowledging racial atrocities is painful. The genocide of Native Americans and the theft, by White people of European descent, of the land they inhabited for more than 10,000 years, is not a comfortable truth to sit with. But compared to what they went through, and continue to go through, our discomfort is nothing. Along with the discomfort this knowledge brings comes a burden, as well: the duty to act. In our upcoming fall newsletter, we will talk more about what actions are possible, proper, and even underway at the Wells Reserve. 

These will likely not be easy or quick solutions, and they will only proceed with the trust and permission of Wabanaki partners and advisors. As a Penobscot elder told our First Light class, “when you walk 40 miles into the woods, that means you need to walk 40 miles out.” Europeans and their kin have spent the past five hundred years penetrating into the wilderness of this continent, leaving many parts of it fractured or emptied. Restoring those lands, sharing them, and even giving them back to their original inhabitants will be the long walk back out, but it will benefit all of us.

Some years from now, it may be appropriate to wish each other a Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, when land and cultural justice have prevailed. Until then, I wish you a respectful Indigenous Peoples Day. ”Respect” comes from the Latin respectare, “to look again or back at,” and that is what we all must do.

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