By Chris Mares
Richard was standing on a large cloth map of Maine that took up the greater part of The Wooley Room. The map was a jigsaw puzzle. There were forty other people, mostly students, also standing on the map. The narrator was explaining how the Wabanaki people depended on nature for all their needs and how they felt at one with the land and waters they belonged. It was their identity. It was who they were.
Richard was thinking about paddling on the Penobscot with his Penobscot friend, Carol, one summer evening when they had been talking about gathering sweetgrass on Vinalhaven. They were paddling along the northern tip of Indian Island – the reservation. He’d known Carol for years. They’d worked together thinking of teaching activities that could be used to preserve the dying Penobscot language for future generations.
Again, the narrator spoke, his voice deep and resonant. He explained what was happening in 16th Century Europe, the age of exploration, and “discovery”. He noted that they would “discover” the Wabanaki lands and how nothing would ever be the same.
The narrrator’s voice was powerful. Portentous. All the students standing on the cloth map were entranced. Richard looked at the script. He was about to read.
The narrator explained how the Europeans made deals, dividing the lands and water that the Wabanaki depended on. This was done, he said, with the support and blessing of the Christian Church under the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.
Richard swallowed after reading. Bastards, he thought. Ignorant, arrogant bastards. He thought of Carol trying to save her people’s language and the fact that the Wabanaki controlled 1% of the lands of Maine and how, still now, the ancestors of these invading Eurpeans were still lying and stealing from the Wabanaki.
European I began to read, he explained about how the Wabanaki were given blankets infected with smallpox. They were given as gifts to an innocent and trusting people. One of the principle strategists, he read, was Lord Jeffrey Amherst after whom the prestigious Amherst College is named. The narrator instructed a number of students who represented the people who died from small pox to step off the map and return to their seats.
Richard felt a sadness in his heart and a constricting of his throat. He had Penobscot friends he paddled with and ran dogs with.
The narrator continued with his instructions. There were fewer and fewer of them and their land was getting smaller. They were moved. Sent to boarding schools. Children were ripped from their families never to see them again.
Richard swallowed as he prepared to read,
He described how the Europeans did not see themselves as colonizers and how they kept the Wabanaki invisible. He explained how they created stories about the Wabanaki that weren’t true, and stories about the Europeans that weren’t true, either.
Richard felt sick. And ashamed. He remembered being blessed and smudged by Butch Philips before the start of the national canoe championships, on the Penobscot river, which began on the reservation known as Indian Island.
Butch was an elder with presence and bearing. He had explained that the river was a blessing. How he Penobscot people honored it as it was their life. He said that he hoped the racers would honor it, too. It had been a beautiful ceremony on a beautiful summer’s day, the paddlers all in a circle a Butch moved from one to another with the smoldering ash and eagle feather fan.
Earlier the narrator had spoken of The Great Dying that took place between 1616 and 1619, in which three quarters of the Wabanaki died. On the coast it was more like 95%. The list of those who died included healers, teachers, spiritual leaders, peacemakers, boat builders, hunters? Students holding white cards represented these people and were asked to leave the map after which there was a moment of silence to honor them.
Richard thought of his friend Carol and her indigenous knowledge of healing plants and her understanding of the interconnected nature of all things. He thought about her skill as a story-teller and her dignity as an elder. He felt tears forming.
He took a breath as he prepared to read, he told all the students with yellow cards that they represented those children who were taken from their homes and sent to residential schools far away.
The map of the Wabanaki lands had shrunk. Hardly any land remained. Hardly any Wabanaki remained.
The narrator began to conclude the exercise. He asked everyone to look around at what they saw in the remaining Wabanakiland and to consider what had happened, what is happening and what is going to happen in Wabanakiland/Maine. The silence in the room was profound and lingering. Everyone was then asked to sit.
Richard looked at the prompt he and the other participants had been given to help them gather their thoughts. He didn’t have to think. He wrote.
The facilitator held up a ceramic fish that had been made in the art department. She said that the fish would be passed around the circle and that participants could share their thoughts should they wish to. If they didn’t or couldn’t they were told to pass it on to the left.
The facilitator passed the fish to her left.
When Richard took the fish, he felt its weight in his hand and the weight of the activity in his soul.
“I shall read what I wrote,” he said.
“I learned how appalling, immoral, and hypocritical the Europeans were. I feel very sad and I want to hug my Penobscot friends and say I’m sorry.”
The tears came and Richard found it hard to speak, but he swallowed and carried on.
“I will write a song called The Great Dying and play it at Open Mic.”