Wenuhc? Wen nil?

I have been posting recently about my latest research concerning my Innu third great grandmother, and because of that I want to write today some clarification about identity and relationship. The more I am learning about Indigenous people–through study, through language, through cultural sharing by Indigenous people–the more I understand that I am not Indigenous. This might not even need to be said, except that there is currently a problem of people with ancestors even more distant or nebulous than mine trying to use those ancestors as a way to claim status as Indigenous or Métis, to get benefits from governments, or preference in hiring or hunting rights, for example. Sometimes they actually use this to try to take away benefits from Indigenous communities.

Years ago, when I was still just beginning to learn about all this, I wasn’t sure if I was permitted to claim an Indigenous identity, or a Métis identity. A few times I did, out of my own ignorance. And it is not simple for those of us who are mostly something else, but want to honor our Indigenous ancestors. Even so, I can’t imagine trying to use it to take something away from Indigenous or Métis communities. What I hope for is to be a good relative, a friend, to use my position in this society to act in support of Indigenous communities.

For my latest presentation in our Passamaquoddy language class, I found myself drawn to a word in Passamaquoddy that has been used to describe non-Indigenous people: “Wenuhc.” What does it mean? Some definitions say, “white person.” And that is partly true—it refers to white people. But, its roots come from an old meaning. When, they say, strangers came here to Wabanaki land, the Native people said, “Wenuhc?” It meant, “Who are they?” It also held a question, like, “Where are they from?”

When I ask the question of myself, it comes out: “Wen nil?” “Who am I?” The traditional way to introduce oneself is by naming the place where you come from, and your relatives, the people you come from. But for me, as a wenuhc, that wasn’t so simple. The more I played with the concepts, the more confusing it became—which certainly is a characteristic of many of us living in the mainstream culture of the United States. I want to share some of what I wrote—but mostly just the English translation:

The early strangers said, “We are Englishmen.” I speak English, but my roots are not English—so am I English? Wen nil? Who am I? Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots. But, I can’t speak German. I have German roots, but am I German? Wen nil? Who am I? My grandmother came from Quebec, and she spoke French. I can speak French, a little. I have French roots, but am I French?

Wen nil? Who am I? My grandmother’s great grandmother is named Marie Madeleine. She was Innu. She spoke Innu. Now, I know how to speak Innu a little, only a very few words. I have Innu roots, but am I Innu? Now, I can also speak Passamaquoddy a little, but I am not Passamaquoddy.

Wen nil? Who am I? I don’t know. I am a wenuhc woman, a “who are they?” woman. I am far away from family. Sixteen years ago, I came to Wabanaki land in order to work. Now, I am done working. So, what am I doing? Am I a preacher? Am I a witch? Am I a writer? Am I a gardener? Wen nil? Who am I? Tama nuceyaw? Where am I from? All my grandparents lived in cities. Now, I live in the city, Portland. Am I lost? How do I find myself? Am I a stranger? Am I your friend? Am I foolish? Am I wise? I don’t know. Wen nil? Who am I? I am confused.

What I learn from this Passamaquoddy writing process is that I am not well connected to a place or to my relatives. My being a lesbian, my being a justice activist, my moving around a lot, all contributed to a feeling and reality of being disconnected from place and family. And given the injustice I found all around me in “American” culture, I don’t regret the need I felt to resist it, to break away from it. But in some ways, that is a very “American” way of being. “America” celebrates individual identity and mobility. It defines who we are by what we do.

When I seek to find my way into relationship with the earth, with all beings of the earth, with the ancestors, with spirit, when I begin to value this relatedness, I see more clearly how I have been cut off from places and people that I might have been from. And I see more and more clearly how I am not Indigenous. I am wenuhc. I am “Who are they?”

And that truth is real, it is okay. “Who am I?” is an open question. It is why I make a spiritual journey into earth community. I can learn. As I learn to be thankful for everything, I begin to feel how I am related to everything, despite being wenuhc.

Note: I first learned about the word “wenuhc” from my Passamaquoddy language teacher Roger Paul. More recently, the organization I volunteer with, Wabanaki REACH, posted about this word on its Facebook page, quoting Rebecca Sockbeson (Penobscot), 2019.

Photo: Pileated woodpecker on a pine tree near our house. The woodpecker is a symbol of friendship for Wabanaki people.

The Ongoing Struggle

I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy:  Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country.  You can guess who I mean.

It is not the worst time in our country’s history.  That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people.  (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.)  Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.)  I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.

But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power.  For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.

But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)

Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?

It is no easy struggle.  I don’t know how we achieve our goal.  But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.

Sunrise

Winter dawn