Imagine living in a nation where extermination of your race and culture has been official government policy — a country where vestiges of those policies linger.
Imagine living in a state that once paid bounties for the scalps of your relatives — a state that did not allow your people to vote until 1967.
Twenty-two non-Native American men and women gathered in the basement of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Houlton on April 11 to seek a deeper understanding of their shared history and future with members of Maine’s Wabanaki communities: Micmac, Maliseet, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy.
They had come from towns in the St. John Valley, central Aroostook County and the Houlton area. Some came with experience in social services, juvenile justice and foster care, but all were there as individuals, not professionals, to educate themselves and support each other enough to create change in their communities with the goal of justice for Wabanaki people.
Led by Barbara Kates and Paul Strickland of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a cross-cultural collaborative of state and tribal child welfare organizations, the group viewed a film about U.S. government relationships with Native Americans, discussed the meaning of “white privilege” and brainstormed ways participants could function as allies for Wabanaki people.
“You have to be invited,” Kates and Strickland cautioned those who aspire to be allies.
“Allies cannot be self-defined. They must be claimed by the people they seek to ally with,” Kates said, quoting a sourcebook for a collective in Minnesota seeking justice for Dakota tribes.
And so those gathered in Houlton tried to determine how to make themselves available to their Micmac and Maliseet neighbors in Aroostook County while helping others in their communities understand the reasons and need for change.
“We need to be willing to experience the anger,” Kates said in response to a group member who attended a tribal event and did not feel welcome.
“There are two kinds of anger,” observed another participant, describing the feelings evoked within white people by knowledge of their government’s treatment of indigenous people, as well as the anger expressed by Native Americans toward non-natives.
Members of the group worked to process the first type of anger after viewing the 2006 documentary “The Canary Effect,” detailing the genocidal practices of the U.S. government. Those practices involved not only the brutal killing of infants, children and adults, but also sterilization of women, forced migration and the removal of children from their families into residential schools designed to erase all traces of Native American culture.
“Kill the Indian, save the man” was the mission of boarding schools where Indian children received non-Indian names, haircuts and clothing, experienced physical and mental abuse and were forbidden to speak their languages. Instead of killing the person, the founder of the first such school, Richard Henry Pratt, resolved: “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead.”
Many Wabanaki children from Maine were taken to such a school in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, between 1922 and 1968.
Those gathered in Houlton learned that in 1755, when Maine was still part of Massachusetts, Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips issued a proclamation offering bounties for the scalps of members of the Penobscot tribe. He wanted the scalps brought to Boston as evidence they had been killed. Scalps of males over age 12 were worth 40 pounds, females of the same age brought 25 pounds, male and female children under 12 netted 20 pounds. The bloody body parts were called “redskins.”
Becoming an ally begins with such knowledge of the past, but focuses on the present and the future.
As an example, Kates described recent efforts by groups in Maine and elsewhere to repudiate an ancient law that justifies the taking of land not inhabited by Christians and enslaving or killing inhabitants who could not be converted.
The Doctrine of Discovery “has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring aboriginal possession of land in favor of colonial or post-colonial governments,” according to www.doctrineofdiscovery.org.
The doctrine has been cited as recently as 2005 by the U.S. Supreme Court in disputes over Native American land. Kates said the Episcopal Church renounced the doctrine in 2009, one of numerous faith communities to have done so since 2007. Among them are the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the World Council of Churches, several Quaker meetings and the United Church of Christ.
The group’s discussion of “white privilege” and “microaggression” deepened individual awareness of the advantages white people take for granted and of how insensitive comments and questions send unintended messages.
An example of white privilege presented in a handout involved a woman who said she had “no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.”
A handout on microaggression referred to the statement, “Indians want casinos,” which implies that all Native Americans are the same or want the same thing.
As they left Houlton for their homes throughout The County, members of the group carried with them an appreciation of the terms “truth” and “reconciliation” that will be valuable in coming weeks.
Between April 30 and June 1, the five-member Maine-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission will present its recommendations for improving child welfare practices in Maine. Based on more than 200 interviews with natives and non-natives associated with child welfare, the findings, recommendations and lessons learned will form the groundwork for continued healing and change.
The public is invited and attendees will have the opportunity to ask questions and make comments at five forums to be held:
— Bangor: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 30, at the Dyke Center, Husson University.
— Presque Isle: 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 6, at the University of Maine at Presque Isle Campus Center.
— Machias: 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 13, at the University of Maine at Machias, Science 102.
— Portland: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 27, at the Rines Auditorium, Portland Public Library.
— Augusta: noon Monday, June 1, at the Cultural Building Atrium, State House Complex.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.