Standing on the Indian Island bridge earlier this month, on Aug. 3, I watched with pride and happiness as a long line of canoes came down the river between Indian Island and Milford, heading to the portage around the Old Town-Milford dam. These were the lead canoes of the Bashabez Run, a 15.5 mile canoe and kayak race from Indian Island to Brewer.
This was a historic event, as it was the first official canoe race to the tide water of the Penobscot River after the removal of the two lower dams that had previously interrupted the river’s flow. It was possibly the largest flotilla of watercraft ever to travel down this section of the river.
This was all made possible by the efforts of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust and its partners, who had the vision to remove the dams and restore the lower river to its original free-flowing state. Most of the race participants and observers of the Bashabez Run felt a great deal of satisfaction because this race was a celebration of one the most ambitious river restoration projects ever.
As I watched the canoes negotiate the rapids created by the removal of the Great Works Dam in 2012 and the Veazie Dam in 2013, I was reminded of the many times I paddled upriver from Indian Island. I would often imagine my ancestors in their birch bark canoes traveling on a free-flowing river. Or I would picture them fishing at Burnnurwumskek, the falls a few hundred yards below Indian Island and the present-day site of the Milford dam.
All my life, I dreamed of the day when we could once again travel on the river unimpeded by the dams. However, I didn’t believe I would live to see a portion of the river restored by the removal of the lower two dams. The Bashabaz Run celebrated this important milestone in the river’s history and in the history of the Penobscot Nation.
Because the race was a celebration of the restoration of the river sponsored by the Penobscot Nation along with the American Canoe Association and the New England Paddle America Club, we felt it was fitting to conduct a native traditional ceremony to mark the beginning of the race.
Before the ceremony began, an eagle flew over as if to acknowledge and bless the gathering. We thanked the ancestors for their many gifts and asked the creator to guide and keep the paddlers safe as they carried the spirits of our ancestors with them over the ancient canoe route to the sea.
Each paddler was asked to treat each stroke of the paddle as a prayer in memory of, and in gratitude to, the ancestors for their gift of the river and our culture and to thank all those who worked so long to restore the river, creating upstream passage for the spawning sea run fish and enhancing the habitat for the creatures that live in, on and near the river.
This ceremony was very meaningful to the Penobscot and emotional for both Indian and non-Indian alike.
To the Penobscot Nation, nothing in the natural world is more important than the river. It defines us as a people. Our ancestors canoed this river for countless generations, but over the past 200 years, river travel was diminished because of the building of dams. This changed the way of life and the culture of the Penobscot Nation.
As native people, we inherit the responsibility to respect Mother Earth and all her creatures, to protect the environment and to maintain our culture. However, tribal leaders struggle to keep the culture intact and protect the people. With each successive generation, that task becomes more difficult as we are forced to react to numerous environmental, cultural and health impacts. With the removal of the dams and restoration of new river habitat, a portion of our river culture has been restored — and a dream has been realized.
Someday we will be the ancestors. I hope future generations, both Indian and non-Indian alike, will acknowledge our gift of a revitalized river that is much healthier than the river my generation inherited.
I watched with pride as my son Scott and my granddaughter Sage paddled in the race and carried on our canoeing tradition. They were part of a 12-person “war canoe” crew, made up of two different cultures, all paddling together, over renewed rapids, on this ancient canoe route. They were celebrating the rebirth of the Penobscot River and the rebirth of a core part of the Penobscot Nation.
Butch Phillips of Milford is a Penobscot Nation tribal elder and co-chair of the ambassadors for the Penobscot River Restoration Project.