“As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” An expression often heard on election night holds a promise that could take us well beyond the election this year. Paradoxically, it begins with the age-old story of competition and conquest — us versus them — a story writ large during the “Age of Discovery” as European powers came in contact with the lands and resources of indigenous peoples.
But in Maine a new chapter of discovery is now being written: how the “us versus them” of conquest can become the “us” of community.
When the first Europeans reached the coast of what we now call Maine, the indigenous people, known collectively as Wabanaki — people of the land of the dawn — had already been here for more than 12,000 years. Some of the first visitors to arrive spent the winter of 1607-1608, but they were unable to establish a viable settlement, even with the help and guidance of the Wabanaki.
Others followed, though, and as more and more stayed the Wabanaki became “other” in their own land. Colonialism became a form of identity theft, a taking away of that which makes a person or a people who they are.
We took their lives. In just three years, between 1616 and 1619, 90 percent of the Wabanaki population died, thousands from disease. But over the centuries many were also killed outright, the bodies or scalps of men, women, and even children under 12, turned in for a bounty.
We took their land. Where there were once 20 tribes — most of the land now called Maine, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces of Canada — only four remain: Maliseet (Houlton Band), Micmac (Aroostook Band), Passamaquoddy (Indian Township and Pleasant Point), and Penobscot Nation.
We took their children. In the 1870s Indian children as young as 5 years old were placed in residential schools, where they stayed until they “graduated.” The stated purpose of these “schools” was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Treated as slave labor, these children were abused physically, emotionally and sexually. Many died. Even after the residential schools were closed — and the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 — Indian children were still being placed, and at a disproportionate rate, with non-Indian foster families.
We suppressed their language — one with no words that devalue others — by forcing them to use English, with many words that devalue others. But more than just words, language helps shape how we see and act in relation to others. So we couldn’t take their sovereign cultural identity.
Instead of seeing themselves as victims of centuries of systematic attempts to destroy them, tribal leaders in Maine worked with state officials to establish a way forward to ensure that what happened in the past does not continue to happen in the future. And so on June 29, the Gov. Paul LePage and all the Wabanaki tribal chiefs signed a collaborative agreement to find better ways of doing things in the future. The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the first of its kind in the nation.
The work of the truth and reconciliation commission is not a matter of guilt or blame. We can’t undo what has been done in the past. But listening and learning can help us all let go of old assumptions and build new relationships.
We tend to think of “other” in terms of opposites — white, nonwhite; east, west; colonizer, colonized — that are at either end of a line, a continuum. Yet the diameter of a circle is a line. And while the person directly opposite us is an “other,” so is the person on either side of us, just as we are “other” to those across from us and next to us. It’s not a matter of “either/or” but of “both/and.” Different does not mean better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad. It means not the same.
And now, with the commission, a way exists to turn a legacy of competition and conquest into one of cooperation and community. It begins with the individual, not self versus other, but us, each one of us, because we are all “other” to someone. And so there can be no justice for any of us until there is justice for all of us.
As Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”
Donna Gann, of Bernard, is a member of the publicity subcommittee of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.