Many years ago, I had the privilege of taking a graduate course when I was doing my graduate in work in education that was called “Politics, Education and Oppressed Peoples.” The class brought together students from around the world, including black south Africans during a time of Apartheid, Palestinians from the West Bank, a Catholic from Northern Ireland and a number of folks representing various Indian Tribes from our own nation. It was an important learning experience for me as each of the folks shared some of the profound struggles and pain of their respective communities as well as the sources of strength and beauty. Perhaps the most important lessons I learned came from some of my classmates from the Americas…including members of the BlackFoot, Passamaquoddy, and Ojibwe nations. Their stories were poignant as they spoke of the Indian schools of their childhood where they were not allowed to speak their native language and were forced to cut their hair, an important cultural symbol to them. Many recalled the separation from their parents at a young age and the ways in which it took such a toll on their relationships. Their stories were also deeply inspiring and often included how they found strength and solace in nature. One of my classmates from Minnesota was asked where he found peace and spiritual comfort and he talked about times spent out in the woods, surrounded by the beauty of creation.
Our Biblical tradition carries countless stories of a people yearning for freedom, yearning for justice, yearning to return to their homeland after years in captivity in Egypt. As Christians, we are often called to listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters and to respect their stories of suffering and pain, of beauty and resilience and so today, we pause to ask forgiveness on behalf of our ancestors and to reflect upon the work that yet needs to be done to ensure that those who were the first to walk upon these lands may be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
It was only two years ago that our state joined 13 other states in observing what we know call Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday in October. At the time, our Governor, Janet Mills, was joined by the Penobscot Nation Ambassador, Maulian Dana, as she signed into law the legislation which proclaimed that the second Monday in October would be known as Indigenous Peoples Day in the state of Maine In her remarks, she shared, “Our history is by no means perfect. But, for too long, it has been written and presented in a way that fails to acknowledge our shortcomings,”
“There is power in a name and in whom we choose to honor,” Mills said. “Today, we take another step in healing the divisions of the past, in fostering inclusiveness, in telling a fuller, deeper history, and in bringing the State and Maine’s tribal communities together to build a future shaped by mutual trust and respect.”
The Penobscot Nation Ambassador Dana said, “On behalf of the Penobscot Nation and with all the Wabanaki and Indigenous People of Maine, in our hearts we thank the Maine State Legislature, especially Representative Benjamin Collings and the bill’s cosponsors and supporters, and Governor Mills for this significant act. “It shows a true intent to honor the Indigenous Nations of our State and brings all citizens to an elevated understanding and reconciliation of our shared history. As the original stewards of these lands and waters we are happy that our ancestral ties and contributions are validated and celebrated instead of silenced and ignored by the previous holiday that glorified the attempted genocide of our Nations. Our past can be painful but our present and future can be brighter with acts of unity and honesty.” There is still progress to be made in our state, but this was an important step forward.
Sadly, an important part of the history of our nation includes hundreds of years of military invasion and war followed by at least two hundred years of systematic and sustained efforts to defeat the earliest residents already occupying this land. It is a tragic and painful history of the colonization of this continent. Part of the systematic extermination of Native People was the outlawing of any practice or language of Native People. Anything that was a reflection or manifestation of Indian culture, religion, lifestyle, language or heritage was strictly forbidden. Punishment was swift and terrible.
It has only been in recent decades that efforts have been made to begin to honor our brothers and sisters. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (commonly abbreviated to AIRFA) – a US federal law and a joint resolution of Congress – was passed in 1978. It was created to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts and Native Hawaiians.
Native people now are continuing to restore or recover their languages, culture and customs as well as their religious practices and beliefs. We who are not native cannot begin to understand the pain and suffering endured by native people during the centuries when they were prohibited from living as their ancestors had lived for thousands of years.
The history of invasion and colonization is the subject of the book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. If we are ever to live in harmony and balance with the earth and all our relations, we must acknowledge our history – all of it, make amends where we can, begin again in greater understanding when we can, and give proper place and agency to all our relations.
Rev. Margaret Beckman says this, “It matters that we see Indigenous People. It matters that we call them by their own names. It matters that we validate their experience of colonization and that we work to make amends. We are not responsible for colonization, but we are beneficiaries of that process. We are responsible for what we do now – now that we begin to comprehend and understand the devastating long-term consequences of that process.”
What I have come to understand in my own life is that no individual or people within a community want to be thought of as victims, despite the hardships and pain they have endured. The Indigenous peoples of our state are proud of their heritage, of their culture, tradition, language, food, spirituality and stories which help define where they have come from and who they are as a people.
Like many indigenous peoples, there are many stories within the Abenaki culture which speak of their history, their way of life and their traditions. These stories have been handed down through the generations and between families and tribes. While each storyteller has their own ways of sharing their stories, there are common characters they continue to appear in the Abenaki stories. For example,
Gluskabe (pronounciation?) is a central figure in many Abenaki
legends. He is a folk hero who is kind and helpful. He teaches the Abenaki about their culture and about the Great Spirit, who is the
source of all life. Gluskabe also has magical powers and can turn monsters into harmless animals. Many traditions embrace an origin story and the Abenaki share theirs in this way: Abenaki Emergence Story: First Manitou, the Great Spirit, made Kloskurbeh, the great teacher. One day when the sun was directly overhead, a young boy appeared to Kloskurbeh. He explained that he had been born when the sea had churned up a great foam, which was then heated by the sun, congealed, and came alive as a human boy. The next day, again at noon, the teacher and the boy greeted a girl. She explained that she had come from the earth, which had produced a green plant which bore her as fruit. And so Kloskurbeh, the wise teacher, knew that human beings came forth from the union of sea and land. The teacher gave thanks to Manitou and instructed the boy and girl in everything they needed to know.
For many of us, maybe the first step we might take is to learn more about the Abenaki nation and the history and culture of our neighbors who have called these lands home for a long time. I’m sure you’d agree that we have much to catch up on from what was left out of the history books of our youth.