Remembering Those Who First Walked This Land
October 10, 2021
As we begin, we acknowledge that the land upon which we are now gathered was first the land of the people of the Wabenaki Tribes…Their name means the people of the dawn, the land of the East, which comprised what we know now as New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. We know that Native people’s story began long before our own ancestors arrived on these shores. For thousands of years, the ancestors of Maine’s present-day Native Americans have made their lives here. Known today as Abenaki, Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot, these tribes are collectively called the Wabanaki. Most of us grew up celebrating or observing tomorrow as Columbus Day and we were taught a very simplistic and romanticized version of the story of Christopher Columbus “discovering” this land. Tragically, the truth is far from what most of us learned and so today, we pause and we recognize and affirm the stories, the history, the suffering, and the culture of the peoples who first lived upon these lands with respect for all of creation. Let us pray,
I’d like to begin with the Creation Story of the Abenaki people, the story that has been passed along from one generation to the next which helped explain their understanding of how all of creation came into being…
The Great Spirit, in a time not known to us looked about and saw nothing. No colors, no beauty. Time was silent in darkness. There was no sound. Nothing could be seen or felt. The Great Spirit decided to fill this space with light and life.
From his great power he commanded the sparks of creation. He ordered Tôlba, the Great Turtle to come from the waters and become the land. The Great Spirit molded the mountains and the valleys on turtle’s back.
He put white clouds into the blue skies. He was very happy.He said, “Everything is ready now. I will fill this place with the happy movement of life.“He thought and thought about what kind of creatures he would make.
Where would they live? What would they do? What would their purpose be? He wanted a perfect plan. He thought so hard that he became very tired and fell asleep.
His sleep was filled with dreams of his creation. He saw strange things in his dream. He saw animals crawling on four legs, some on two. Some creatures flew with wings, some swam with fins. There were plants of all colors, covering the ground everywhere. Insects buzzed around, dogs barked, birds sang, and human beings called to each other. Everything seemed out of place. The Great Spirit thought he was having a bad dream. He thought, nothing could be this imperfect.
When the Great Spirit awakened, he saw a beaver nibbling on a branch. He realized the world of his dream became his creation. Everything he dreamed about came true. When he saw the beaver make his home, and a dam to provide a pond for his family to swim in, he then knew everything has its place, and purpose in the time to come.
It has been told among our people from generation to generation. We must not question our dreams. They are our creation. (https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/AbenakiCreationStoryandTheImportanceofDreaming-Abenaki.html)
The first documented observance of Columbus Day in the United States took place in New York City in 1792, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the Western Hemisphere as an annual celebration of Italian–American heritage in San Francisco in 1869. In 1934, at the request of the Knights of Columbus and New York City’s Italian community, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the first national observance of Columbus and the U.S. Congress made October 12 a national holiday three years later. In 1972 President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making the official date of the holiday the second Monday in October.
Generations of Native people, however, throughout the Western Hemisphere have protested Columbus Day for a long time. Their grievances stem from the fact that the colonial takeovers of the Americas, which began with Columbus’ arrival to these shores and actions he took, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors.
It was in 1977 when participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America. Their proposal urged Americans to rethink our history.” (Smithsonian Magazine, October 2020)
Wabanaki means People of the Dawnland. As the first people to greet the sunrise, they have long believed that they are responsible for “holding up the sky.” Wabanaki people, including the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki Nations, have inhabited what is now northern New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and Quebec, since time immemorial according to oral histories, and for at least 13,000 years according to the archaeological record.
Wabanakis are constantly adapting in response to dramatic changes in the environment. Their cultures also have changed over time, with the development of sophisticated political networks, evolving philosophies, and a deep understanding of the landscape. For generations, Wabanaki people traveled seasonally, planting corn on the riverbanks in the spring, harvesting fish on the coast and gathering berries during the summer, and hunting game in the woods during wintertime. Their mobile lifestyle was prosperous, but radically changed with the coming of European settlers around 400 years ago, and later with the splitting of ancestral territory through the establishment of arbitrary international and state borders.
Wabanaki is the first language of Maine. The original words of this land—Casco, Katahdin, Kennebec, Androscoggin, Pemaquid, moose—surround us.
Wabanaki is part of the Algonkian language group, and each tribe has a distinct language that expresses worldview. The names they use to describe themselves are evocative of their place in Maine:
Mi’gmaw (Micmac) – my kin-friends
Panawahpskewtəkʷ (Penobscot) – river of white rocks opening or
Peskotomuhkatiyik (Passamaquoddy) – people who spear pollock
Wolastoqewi (Maliseet) – people of the beautiful river
As settlers colonized Maine with a dominant English language system, they named towns after their founding fathers or English homelands, resulting in a situation where Wabanaki people are now living in a deeply familiar place, populated with foreign words.
Wabanaki children were at times forcibly removed from their homes, and were not allowed to speak their languages. Tribal members left the reservations for educational and employment opportunities to cities like Portland and Boston, where they raised families. As a result, generations of Wabanaki people grew up not knowing their language. Language revitalization and school programs in Wabanaki communities have brought languages back from the brink of loss.
Today, like all 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot Tribes are sovereign nations. They manage large tracts of tribal forest lands, operate governments, support educational and environmental initiatives, speak distinct languages, and administer cultural centers that work to foster language preservation and cultural traditions like basketmaking in Maine. Each of the Maine tribes has their own form of internal government. Penobscot Indian Nation is one of the oldest continuously operating governments in the world.
In Her article, The Mountains Through a Different Cultural Lens: An Abenaki Perspective, Melody Walker, shares some wonderful thoughts about the Abenaki stories of the land…
“In the beginning of all things, Gluskabe, the culture hero of the Abenaki people, formed himself out of dust and began his work of transformation. As he rolled, the valleys and the mountains took shape, but in the process of transforming the world, he also formed himself. Creation always includes self.
Indigenous stories that describe the transformation and the creation of a place have fascinated visitors to indigenous homelands for centuries, and are often seen as little more than myths and legends. An elder from the Penobscot Nation, once mentioned that indigenous people never went above the tree line unless they wished to be closer to the thunder beings and to the creator. That is a place of power. Walker explains, “Our stories of connection are more than stories, they remind us how to exist in a world so filled with ego from new value systems that many can no longer see the faces in the mountains. Our world is in desperate need of this lesson—“walk softly, there are people everywhere.”
As Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac explained, “Our stories open our eyes and hearts to a world of animals and plants, of earth and water and sky. They take us under the skin and into the heartbeat of Creation…Our stories remember when people forget.” We tell stories of change in a landscape that is animate not because the world was once a place of creation, but rather because it is a place of creation. The stories tell of a world shaped positively by human beings. Our connection to place is cemented through ceremony and stories, old and new. There is an incredible amount of belonging in the way Abenaki people view the world, and through this cultural lens we not only see creation looming before us in the majesty of a mountain, but we can also see it in the petals of the flower at its base. We are a community of many types of persons and we all belong to each other. For dominant society, these aspects may seem foreign, but for those who spend time within Ndakinna’s forests and climb to the peaks of our majestic kin the possibility of understanding is there.
When I was asked about place names, stories, and sacred sites to share with readers, my most salient question while researching our lore was, why? What can our stories provide to those outside of our culture? Is knowing the root of the desire more important than the information itself?
Perhaps what people are most craving is a sense of belonging—to name what is felt but is rarely spoken. “People” in dominant society refers only to humans. Abenaki stories teach us what belonging means, what it means to be a person, and what it means to walk as if all things mattered. Dominant society is largely devoid of these ideas, and naming a difficult concept without the proper words must come from other viewpoints.
Our sacred sites and stories of place are not needed by our new neighbors, because what is needed is to acknowledge we can all create new stories together. Love this place with us. Walk in a sacred way through the mountains, through the streams, and in the woods. The real power of a story is to reaffirm and continuously celebrate the most important relationship you have—the bond with creation. We belong to the places we love. Perhaps all that is needed is to remember we are all worthy of belonging. Author Robin Kimmerer wrote, “For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.” Tell us your stories.”
Penobscot author Joseph Nicolar recorded a tribal prophecy noting that elders, “decided, that when the strange people came, to receive them as friends, and if possible make brothers of them.” When English people arrived in Wabanaki territory, including the land now known as Maine, Wabanaki leaders worked to incorporate settlers into their social and ecological networks, to create responsible relationships, and to “make kin” and alliances with their guests.
English guests all too often misinterpreted such hospitality, misunderstanding the obligations that accompanied the privilege of sharing space. The written language of the English as compared with wampum protocols and verbal agreements of the Wabanaki led to confusion and to deliberate dispossession. Even as Wabanaki people strove to incorporate settlers into their Indigenous cultural and economic systems, the settlers sought their signatures and consent of land ownership on finite political documents.” Lisa Brooks, Abenaki (Missisquoi and Pemigewasset)