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Commentary: Who lived here until Europe showed up on the shore?

Commentary: Who lived here until Europe showed up on the shore?

If I could trace my family tree back to the earliest generations in my line, I imagine, I would find them living close to the land, sustaining themselves among wild things and still more at one with the land that held them. Perhaps they could be called “indigenous” to the land they lived on, the first peoples of that specific land and waterway.

Fast forward more than 10,000 years. I am a 57 year old white first generation American. My father immigrated to the US from Canada and his ancestors were originally from France. My mother’s mother arrived from Lithuania. All were looking for a better life and headed straight for the paper mill along the banks of the Androscoggin River in western Maine.

Recently, I have become very aware of the ignorance that prevails in the narrative taught in schools and represented in our culture, about the “discovery of America”.

History classes took place in institutions deeply embedded in American life; public schools. I don’t believe that what we were taught was honest, balanced or complete. The history of the USA was discussed from the perspective of the European classicist nobility. The scholars of the time, imported from Europe, denied access to literacy to the lower classes, women and people of color. The effect was to delay empowerment and obfuscate institutional oppression, marginalization and control so that people could be more effectively exploited.

Records begin with the arrival of Europeans, ignoring the living tradition and oral history here for at least 10,000 years before colonization. There is little mention of the advanced confederation with the many nations and ruling systems that lived here and continue to live in symbiosis as one with the landscapes, the seasons and their kin.

Here in Maine, I live in the Wabanaki Territory, named for the first light of the rising sun, on land once cared for by the “dawn people”.

I am not a native of this country. Europeans, especially the French and British, found this land, and the English colonizers did everything they could to claim what they considered a new discovery, calling it New England.

Dropping anchor near what was called Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Europeans encountered complex societies of tens of thousands of people, specific tribes associated with their own individual traditions, languages, fishing and hunting grounds, and ways of being. They lived in organized systems of trade, cooperation, seasonal migration, reciprocity and deep respect.

At first, many tribal leaders did what they could to acquaint these uninvited guests with their ways and traditions in order to build a life that could work, sharing resources and access to hunting and fishing grounds. This is known as the principle of reciprocity. In the beginning, they shared ideas, practices, seeds, corn, agreements, and even space. For hundreds of years, the first peoples of this land did their best to live, cooperate and coexist.

Within a generation and progressively within new generations, colonists broke trust with First Nations. Contracts are broken. Sham trials with biased juries led to the imprisonment and death of many leaders and their relatives. Slavery became prevalent and bounties were given for the scalps of the local tribes paid by British leaders and the government. The taking of “King Pine” for English ship masts destroyed the forest along the river banks and coastlines.

The ships were filled with ancient trees, migratory fish and “Indian” slaves for trade in the West Indies and back to England.

Greed, power and control drove the British Empire, spilling over the land, under the leadership of the king and his servants in the “new world”.

Deadly diseases were introduced. About 90% of the native population in New England died of disease in the years leading up to 1620. When it became clear that taking the entire country would not be easy, smallpox-infected blankets were given away.

The land is occupied. The rivers, the lifeblood of the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot peoples, were covered in devastating effects.

I can only imagine what it was like to witness the disregard for reciprocity, balance, care and humanity. It must have been a nightmare to witness and experience the onslaught of kidnapping.

Since the mid-1800s, the US government’s official policy toward Native Americans has been to confine each tribe to a specific plot of land called a reservation. The Wabanaki Confederacy, which once lived and thrived in a semi-nomadic manner over a wide area of ​​land and waterways, became confined to concentrated reservations. The population was reduced by 90% by disease, enslavement, bounties and by way of war, disease and enslavement.

Fast forward again to 2023.

I walk the land in Westbrook, open spaces, river trails, railroad tracks, the Sebago to the Sea trail, parks, land trusts. I think about who once lived here, how it was, how they lived in well-practiced diplomacy in cooperation with their whole life.

I imagine villages near the river where crops were grown within the rich soil of the floodplain and on the uplands around the river. I see birchbark canoes traveling up and down the waterways, spreading their impact and making sure the give and take is balanced. I think about who still lives here among us, a race from the original peoples without wider kinship, without proper and fair representation, without reparation, without recognition, without repair.

I look at the signs so proudly displayed and lower my head. There is no question of the real ancestors of this country. Everything begins with the English settlement, as if that’s when the historical calendar and valuable documentation begins.

I came across a journal article that brought me to my knees and became the inspiration for this writing, this study, and this desire to do something, anything to correct what feels so bad, so that we can begin to heal the festering diseases in our society. The research paper is about how the relatives of the river near where I live were treated and how the river was poisoned and blocked by Colonel Westbrook as a means to wipe out the people who live here.

There were many events, settlement attempts and conflicts that are not documented or known through the standard and typical record of colonial history. Thanks to scholars Lisa Brooks and Cassandra Brooks, we have access to an accurate narrative, not one that dismisses or erases documented attempts at birthrights, resolutions, and incredible resilience.

Here one can learn the specifics of the land and the river, the significant role Chief Polin played for decades in honoring his kindred along the Presumpscot River, the river they belonged to, and the ways in which Colonel Westbrook continually defied the governor’s demands and agreements. between the Wabanaki leaders and himself.

To find no references to the original peoples of this land, to find no acknowledgment of human society here prior to the “early settlers”, I find disheartening, dishonest and shameful. Removing the mention of the people who have lived here and belonged to this country for thousands of years is a crude attempt at erasure. Signs can tell us who the first settlers were in an area, but that doesn’t mean they are.

The truth remains that the Wabanaki people of Maine are a resilient, strong, powerful, spiritual people.

Despite attempts at extermination, they lived as one, joined together and today are doing everything they can to restore everything that the colonizers tried to eliminate, including their families, languages, customs, lands, traditions, spirituality and dignity. Those things, in fact, were not taken away. The tribes of Maine are a strong group of people who are here now and always will be.

I am interested in transforming our name and therefore our brand. Who lived here until Europe appeared on the shore and announced its presence? I want the inscriptions to accurately reflect the true history, to tell us how much the natives tried to solve it, to protect the land, the animals, the fish and their relatives. I want the inscriptions to honor the First Nations and use the correct place names to refer to those who belonged to that area.

Witnessing the State of the Wabanaki Nation speech last Thursday has fueled my further conviction and action to be a real-time ally to the Wabanaki Nation.

I know we can do better. It is time.

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