It’s Called Penobscot for a Reason

Kirk Francis

[Penobscot chief, Kirk Francis, speaking at the rally]

Yesterday, I went up to Bangor for a Penobscot River Sovereignty Rally.  This was in response to a recent Appeals Court ruling that stated that the Penobscot River is not a part of the Penobscot Nation–despite the history, despite the fact that the water has never been ceded by any treaty.  This description is from the Event Page:

On Friday, June 30th, the First Circuit Court of Appeals sanctioned the State of Maine’s territorial taking of the Penobscot Nation’s ancestral waterways, by ruling against the Tribe in the Penobscot Nation v. Attorney General Janet Mills, case.

We will not accept this decision. We now call upon ALL of our friends to come and stand with us during this critical time, to say no to the State’s continued infringement upon Tribal rights. Their attempts to violate standing treaty rights and the Maine Claims Settlement Act, by continuing to diminish tribal rights is a shameful shadow on Maine’s history. The Attorney General’s attempts to mislead the public regarding the facts of this case are egregious. She has continuously spread falsities regarding the nature of the Tribe’s interest. It is time that her lies be dragged out into the public sphere and made clear for all to see!

The Penoscot Nation has shared these waterways freely with all of our relatives along the Penoscot River for generations. We have guarded and protected these waterway for all users for centuries. And, when the State allowed it to be contaminated, we took responsibility for cleaning it. Now, the State wants to take these waterways from us, so that they can allows industry another opportunity to desecrate these vital waters, through mountain top mining and hydro-fracking.

The Penobscot Nation has held these waters in trust for all Mainers, and we are the only ones that have taken the initiative to restore these waters to health. We now ask all Mainers to stand with us, so that we can protect these waters for future users.

There was a good article in today’s paper that explains some of the legal issues involved.  I encourage everyone to read Diane Oltarzewski’s Maine Voices: Judge’s dissent in ruling on Penobscot River sets vital legal precedents.

I feel indescribably sad about the continued colonization against the Penobscot people and other Indigenous people on this continent.  When will our society ever stop?

 

Colonization Stories

Broken Tree DSC01792The theme at my congregation for November is “What does it mean to be a community of story?” Of course, stories can be truth-telling, or truth-hiding. For example, I have mixed feelings about the Thanksgiving holiday. I am very much in favor of gratitude. But the stories American culture tells about the holiday have been used to hide the truth about a deep crack in the foundation of our nation, and have distorted and corrupted the high ideals many cherish as the basis of our American democracy.

I am speaking about the colonization of this continent, a destructive process unparalleled in history. Millions of Indigenous people were killed, or died from disease unknown to them. Land was stolen. Treaties were signed and then broken, and then never talked about again. Most of our senators and representatives in Washington know nothing about the legal responsibilities of our federal government to the Indigenous nations within our borders.

Why should we care?  Those of us whose ancestors were among the settlers of the continent?  We have benefited from this colonization, but we have also been harmed by it. Colonization is at the root of the many of the problems that all of us are facing now: the destruction of the natural world, climate change, oppression of one group by another, the overarching greed that has bankrupted our economy. (There is a longer list I could make.) I don’t believe we can fix any of those problems without revisiting our history.

Sadly, churches were/are a large contributor to colonization. I am part of a new project here in Maine, called “Decolonizing Faith.” A few clergy colleagues and I, under the auspices of the Wabanaki REACH program, are exploring the history of colonization, and the role of the churches in it. We recently spent a long weekend with a few partners from the Wabanaki people, having deeper conversations about the impacts of colonization on Wabanaki people, and building trust for future work together. We hope that we might begin to envision how people of faith could help in the process of de-colonization, non-Indigenous people joining together with Indigenous people for the benefit of all people.

Our next plan is to create and hold day-long workshops for people in faith communities to explore these questions together. But we realized this topic is so huge, that perhaps we should start by encouraging people to attend the Ally workshops that are already being offered here in Maine by Wabanaki REACH. These workshops look at the history of U.S. Government relationships with Native people, explore the dynamics of systemic racism, and ask what non-native people can do as allies. Once people have this basic foundation, they will be better prepared for looking at how churches were involved in the problems, and how we can be part of the solutions.

I would encourage folks in Maine to sign up for the ally trainings–you can find out more at the Wabanaki REACH events page.   These trainings will be a prerequisite for the first Decolonizing Faith workshops we hope to offer this winter or spring.

Why I don’t celebrate Columbus Day

Every October and November in the United States, we find ourselves once again in a season of false and misleading stories about European settlers and Native Americans.  First there is the story that Columbus discovered America in 1492.  (Later there is the story about the Pilgrims and the Indians at the first Thanksgiving.)  It is astonishing to me, after all the work done by Native activists and their allies in the last forty years, that these stories keep returning unchanged year after year.  In 1991, the organization Rethinking Schools published Rethinking Columbus, an excellent resource that pointed out for educators the fallacies of the stories we are told and offered practical alternatives.  Certainly in some places a lot has changed.  But there has also been a backlash.  Rethinking Columbus was one of the books banned from Arizona school systems in 2012.

Perhaps many people are willing to acknowledge, if pressed, that when Columbus supposedly “discovered” America, it was already full of people.  But the use of the word “discover” has a more sinister history that is not so often talked about.  Prior to 1492, European church leaders and monarchs had collaborated in a stunning series of proclamations, which became known as the Doctrine of Discovery.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull declaring that the Catholic king of Portugal had the right to conquer any Muslim and pagan peoples and enslave them.  A few years later he wrote a second letter, declaring all the Christian kings of Europe had the right to take the lands and possessions of any non-Christian people, and keep them in perpetuity.  If the pagan inhabitants could be converted to the Christian faith they might be spared, but otherwise they could be enslaved or killed.  The Doctrine of Discovery was also later claimed by the king of England in 1496, authorizing English explorers to seize any lands not already discovered by other Christian nations.

The Doctrine of Discovery became the legal basis for the “discoveries” of Columbus and others, and for the resulting attempts to conquer and colonize the western hemisphere, and unleash a genocide on its peoples.  It was also the legal basis for the slave trade.  And its influence did not remain in that distant past.  It is still a source of oppression to this day.  It became the basis of U.S. Indian Law, beginning in 1823, when Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that “Christian people” who had “discovered” the lands of “heathens” had assumed the right of “dominion,” and thus had “diminished” the Indians’ rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations.  He claimed Indians had merely a right of occupancy in their lands. This decision has never been overturned, and is still cited on a regular basis, as recently as 2010 in the Federal courts.

Responding to the requests of Indigenous peoples, several religious denominations have passed resolutions to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Those of which I am aware are Episcopalians in 2009, Unitarian Universalists and the Society of Friends in 2012, and the United Church of Christ in 2013.  These resolutions are a first step toward reckoning with this history of stolen lands and stolen children.

But let’s go back to Columbus.  The stories of his “discovery” lead to another distortion of our European history in these lands.  This is the idea that the Europeans conquered the Native nations by their superior weaponry and military might.  This holds a partial truth.  The Europeans did try to conquer every Indigenous nation they encountered.  But it would not have been possible without another factor.  Between 1492 and 1650, possibly ninety percent of the Indigenous people of the Americas were killed by plague and other European diseases to which they had no immunity.  The Europeans, sometimes unwittingly but often purposefully, brought an unprecedented apocalypse to this land.

Estimates of the pre-contact population are hard to determine.  One scholar, William Denevan, tried to reconcile all the data and came up with fifty-four million in the Western Hemisphere.  But by 1650, the number had shrunk to six million.  Millions upon millions of people died.  In 1617, a few years before English settlers landed, an epidemic began to spread through the area that became southern New England.  It likely came from British fishermen, who had been fishing the waters off the coast for decades.  By 1620, ninety to ninety-six percent of the population had died.  Villages were left with so many bodies, the survivors fled to the next town, and the disease continued to spread.  It was a catastrophe never before seen anywhere in the world. Books on Shelf DSC00283

 

Decolonizing Faith, Part One

Dawn at the Pond

I am at a small gathering of Native and non-Native people exploring the topic of Decolonizing Faith.  We have been looking at the history of colonization on this continent, and the role of churches in that process, and the effects on Indigenous people’s lives.  We’ve listened to stories shared by Wabanaki folks of disrupted families, foster care, adoption, love and care of relatives, abuse by church leaders, the long path to healing…  We’ve been here since Friday evening, and will stay until Monday.

We are in a lovely house by Chemo Pond (pronounced Sheemo Pond) in Clifton Maine. The natural beauty of the pond is, in itself, healing.  The calls of the loons.  The breezes in the trees. The reflection of red leaves on the water. I took a swim in the pond on Friday, and Saturday morning I sat outside in the dawn watching the sky grow light in the east.  Today it is raining. Today we start to ask, what can be done to turn around the process of colonization (which has never stopped.)  And what might be the role of spirituality and the role of faith communities in that work? It is good to be here.

There will be much more to think about, to write.

Bittersweet Basket Weaving

Bittersweet Ugly Basket

My first “ugly” bittersweet basket.

What does it mean to make a relationship with parts of the natural world that we ordinarily think of as trouble?  I am wrestling with this question as we wrestle with the bittersweet vines that surround our yard.  Asian Bittersweet is classified as an invasive species, because it takes over an area and can wipe out other species.  It is very hard to get rid of it.  This has provoked some places, including Falmouth, Maine, to plan to use horrible pesticides in its eradication–which seems to me an even worse problem–and a never ending one, because they admit that they won’t be able to ever completely eradicate it.

Some folks are taking a different approach however.  Yesterday, Margy and I attended a workshop led by Zack De La Rouda about weaving baskets with bittersweet vines.  I loved  Zack’s attitude–since we brought this plant here, then we need to find ways to deal with the consequences.  And with climate change and other pests threatening species like ash and willow, which have traditionally been used for baskets, we need to keep looking for options.  So he brought us into his experiments with making useful items with bittersweet. Which, as he said, is everywhere. The vines had been cut, dried, and then soaked in water for a couple days. I have to say it was not an easy material to work with–hard to bend and shape, at least for a beginner.  But Zack assured us that everyone has an ugly basket–when our first attempts to learn the skills result in less than usable outcomes.  So I took a pic of my ugly basket.

Another presentation in April got me started on this question.  Tao Orion, author of Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration spoke at the Resilience Hub.  We might think of getting rid of invasives as important to promoting a balanced eco-system.  But what she discovered is that in the professional world of land management, what usually happens first is a complete destruction of the “invaded” area with powerful pesticides.  She helped us to look beyond “the war” and explore other options for dealing with invasives.  For example, we can look at the function invasive plants are playing in the ecosystem where they have taken root, and address imbalances in the soil and other factors that may need attention.

Bittersweet shoots

Bittersweet vine shoots.

Orion was from the west coast, and didn’t specifically address bittersweet.  Margy started cutting off huge vine stems that are surrounding other tree trunks, to try to save those trees from choking.  But the vines are so resilient.  Tiny shoots start coming up in the lawn, from root networks spread beneath the soil. Non-pesticide ways to deal with them include pulling out what you can, cutting off what you can, and ongoing cutting, to keep the roots from getting the nourishment they need.  (Even people who use pesticides have to do all that, by the way.) In the final analysis, there is no way to completely eradicate them, so you have to learn to manage them.

On the plus side, bittersweet is a remarkable example of resilience.  They propagate by seeds, by roots spreading through the soil, and can re-grow from small root segments. You’ve got to admire that multi-functionality. And birds love the seeds in winter.  There are dozens of birds who live in the uncultivated area just west of our yard–which is overrun with bittersweet, as well as raspberries and blackberries and grape vines growing wild.

But on the other hand, I can’t help but compare it in my mind with the European peoples who invaded this continent, including my own ancestors from France and Scotland in Quebec, and my Germanic ancestors who came later–as immigrants being used to settle the west. Just like an invasive plant, the European invaders took over the landscape, wiped out other communities of people, and destroyed the balance of the eco-system.  On an even wider scale, modern human beings as a whole species have overrun our planet and are destroying our ecosystem.

So perhaps the most important lesson bittersweet might teach us is to look in the mirror, at our own invasions, and together we might learn about how to live within respectful boundaries with all of our siblings on this planet.

The Theft of the Land and the Stories that Obscure It

As I wrote in my last post, European peoples are new to the land we call North America. Our history includes the theft of this land from its original people. We have tried to obscure that history through many stories, perhaps most notably our Thanksgiving myths, the stories of the Pilgrims and the Indians.Turkey DSC09718_2

The story tells us when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they were welcomed by the Indian Samoset. He introduced them to Massasoit, chief of the local Indians, the Wampanoag, and to Squanto, who helped the Pilgrims to plant corn, to hunt and fish in their new home, and to survive the first hard year. In the fall, Indians and Pilgrims together celebrated a Thanksgiving for the harvest.

The story of this celebration hides other stories. It hides the plague that wiped out the village of Patuxet, and 90% of the people living on the Northeast Coast. Squanto, whose name was actually Tisquantum, was a survivor because he had been earlier carried off as a slave to England. Did you ever wonder why he could speak English to the Pilgrims? The story hides his capture as a slave, his years in Europe and his attempts to come home, only to find his people gone. But most of all, this story hides the next four hundred years, which were filled with betrayal and enmity and war.

The Pilgrims did not share the Indigenous belief in the sacredness of all beings and places. They saw their own society and ways as superior, as a progress which must be forced on other so-called “inferior” beings. This is the spirit of colonization, from which we haven’t yet recovered. From the Indian side, the colonization of North America has been a long saga of unbearable loss and grief. What irony, then, to watch as non-Indians each year have a holiday celebrating the bond between the Pilgrims and the Indians. Many Native peoples think of Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning.

Now, the first reaction European Americans sometimes feel when we hear about this loss and grief is defensiveness. After all, we think, it wasn’t me who stole Indian land, or caused disease among the people, or killed anyone. Perhaps the second reaction that comes is a feeling of guilt, because of what our ancestors have done. But neither defensiveness nor guilt is really very helpful. We must go deeper than that. How do we acknowledge and heal the brokenness? How do we restore wholeness to this broken land and all of its people?