Anishinaabe Land

Anishinabe Treaty ConferenceIn an earlier post, I began to explore which Indigenous people belonged to the land where my East Frisian ancestors had settled in the 1850s.  But I had not done that for the land where I was born, in Detroit, Michigan. I wasn’t surprised to read that it was Anishanaabe land, the land of the people of the three fires, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Potawatomi.  Significantly, I didn’t learn about them while I was growing up. Nothing. But as a young adult, that changed as I became an activist. I remember participating in an Anishanaabe gathering in Muskegon, Michigan. I found the button I still have from that gathering, the “Great Lakes Anishinabe Treaty Conference,” in 1982.

The Anishinaabek were really the first Indigenous peoples that I learned about. It has been so long since I lived in Michigan (I left in 1983), that it is hard to remember too many details about what I learned at that time, rather than later.  I remember a children’s book written by Edward Benton-Banai, in which I learned the word for grandmother was Nokomis.  I remember that sovereignty was important, and treaties had historically been tools for taking land away from the people, but they also preserved certain rights to hunting and fishing.  Louise Erdrich is a brilliant Anishinaabe novelist from whom I learned much more of the people’s lives in the context of colonization.

The Anishinaabek lived in the area of the Great Lakes before any Europeans arrived.  I learned from Roger Paul, in my Wabanaki Languages class, that the Anishinaabek were related to the Wabanaki many generations ago, and lived on the east coast.  About a thousand years ago, they were led to move west, and they were guided to stop in the Great Lakes. The Anishinaabe languages are in the same language family as the Wabanaki, (and the Innu as well), called Algonquian by linguists. The word for “my grandmother” in Passamaquoddy is Nuhkomoss.  The Innu would say, Nukum.

The first Europeans who interacted with the Anishinaabek in the Great Lakes region were the French.  When Michigan later became a territory of the new United States, the majority of people living in Michigan were Native people.  You can find out many more details of the history of the people from that time forward on the website of the Ziibiwing Center of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.  Michigan still has twelve federally recognized tribes today.

I think the first step in the process of making right relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is to learn the history of our peoples’ interactions with each other, to understand the traumatic process of colonization that occurred on these lands. Only if we know the history can we begin to make sense of the present.  With the mixed blessing of the internet, it isn’t so hard to find out these things if we look.  Do you know what Indigenous people lived on the land which you now occupy?


Wabanaki Languages 102

I wanted to study Wabanaki languages with Roger Paul as a way of decolonizing my mind.  Yesterday we began the second semester and already I am experiencing two challenges which seem directly related to this very decolonization process.

Wabanaki languages were spoken for thousands of years, and only more recently have been written, usually with the aid of outside linguists who were sent to each tribe and devised writing systems that differed from each other.  These writing systems are still in flux.  There is an “official” writing system for Passamaquoddy for example, exemplified in the online dictionary, but there are also phonetic systems that spell words more closely based on how they sound.  Roger really doesn’t care how we spell the words.  He grew up speaking the language, but only learned to write it as an adult.  He cares about how we pronounce and speak. So this is a shift from my own ingrained habit of learning more by seeing a word written, than by hearing it spoken. (Though of course, all babies learn to listen and speak before we learn to write. And we do learn to write the words as well.)

The second challenge is that Wabanaki words do not exist as fixed isolated units, but change form in relationship to the context and meaning. In the first semester, we studied lists of words (and a few phrases), beginning to create a basic vocabulary.  But in this semester, we will be studying sentences.  Words in relationship to each other.  And words as sentences–because a sentence might be expressed in one “word.”

As I think about it, I realize how much this may reflect underlying differences between Euro-centric culture and Indigenous culture here on this land.  Euro-centric culture is object oriented–taking things apart, categorizing them, defining them.  Indigenous culture is relational–nothing exists except in relation to everything else. Likewise, English words are more fixed in form, while Wabanaki words are relational.

Last semester, I gradually created a huge set of flash cards with all the words presented, so I could practice and learn them.  I created recorded excerpts of the words and their meanings, so I could listen to them (especially in the car) and get the pronunciations into my head. But now, we are stepping into a different sort of process. The change goes deeper.

Kuskicinuwatu?  (or) Gooskeejinuwadoo? (or) Do you speak a Native language?

Robins in berry tree

Robins hidden within the branches of a winter tree.



I Walk in Passamaquoddy

I have had the privilege of studying Wabanaki Languages this fall, taught by Roger Paul. For me it has been a small way to begin to decolonize my mind–to begin to think differently.  Our final project was to make a short presentation to our class, and I was inspired by the words we had learned to talk about the animals I see and hear on my morning walk. I also drew on the Passamaquoddy/Maliseet (Wolastoqe) Language Portal for further help with verb and noun forms, and I learned some new words along the way.  If any speakers of the language read this, edits are welcome! Roger encouraged us to jump in with using the language, even though we will make mistakes. 

For those who do not know about Wabanaki languages, you might find it interesting that animals are not referred to as “it,” and people are not referred to by “he” or “she.”  There are “animate” and “inanimate” forms, and both people and animals are referred to by animate, non-gendered verb and noun forms.  A lot of information is encoded into one word.  So, for example, “npomuhs” means “I walk.”  “Nutuwak” means “I hear (beings plural and animate.)

Ntoliwis Mayk. Nuceyaw Portland.  (My name is Myke. I am from Portland.)

Spasuwiw npomuhs. Wolokiskot.  (In the morning I walk. It is a beautiful day.)

Nolokuhs lahtoqehsonuk.   (I walk in the direction of the north.)

Nutuwak sipsisok.   (I hear small birds.)

Nomiyak mihkuwiyik oposik.  (I see squirrels in a tree.)

Apc, nolokuhs cipenuk.   (Next, I walk in the direction of the east).

Nomiya kisuhs musqonok.  (I see the sun in the sky.)

Nutuwak kahkakuhsok. Tolewestuhtuwok.  (I hear the crows. They are talking)

Nomiyak oqomolcin kehsuwok nehmiyik awtik.  (I see eight turkeys in the street.)

Apc, nolokuhs sawonehsonuk.  (Next, I walk in the direction of the south.)

Npomuhs sipuwahkuk, naka nomiya motehehsim sipuhsisok.   (I walk along the edge of the brook, and I see a duck in the brook.)

Nutuwa pakahqaha lamatokiw.  (I hear a woodpecker a little ways into the forest.)

Wahte, nomiya qaqsoss.  (In the distance, I see a fox.)

Apc, nolokuhs skiyahsonuk, naka ntapaci nikok.   (Next, I walk in the direction of the west, and I come back to my house).

WoodchuckNomiya munimqehs kihkanok. N’ciciya wot.   (I see a woodchuck in the garden. I know this one.)

Coness, Munimqehs! Musa micihkoc kihkakonol! Wesuwess!   (Stop, Woodchuck! Don’t eat the vegetables! Go back where you came from! )

Munimqehs qasku. Qasku asit kakskusik. Qasku lamatokiw.   (Woodchuck runs. S/he runs behind the cedar. S/he runs a little ways into the forest.)

Toke, ntop qotaputik qocomok.  (Now, I sit in the chair outside.)

Komac Wolokiskot! Woliwon!   (It is a very good day. Thank you)

Going Back to School

USM IDI have a feeling of glee because I am taking a class at the University of Southern Maine.  Well, actually I am auditing it.  I discovered that anyone 65 and over can audit classes almost for free (compared to actual tuition costs).  I had to pay a $55 “transportation” fee, and then learned that with my student ID (I have a student ID!) I can take the metro bus for free.  So many new things, and it reminds me of my excited feelings of going back to school when I was a kid.

But I am especially excited about this class, Wabanaki Languages, taught by Roger Paul, whom I got to know through the Decolonizing Faith project in which I am involved.  Roger is really fun and funny and is a native speaker of the language, and a fountain of history and understanding. We’ll be learning “oral history of Wabanaki languages and stories of Wabanaki elders passed from generation to generation,” along with vocabulary and pronunciation and the like.

For those who are not from this area, the Wabanaki peoples are the Indigenous people of Maine, and there are four distinct modern tribal communities, but as Roger tells us, they are not really so distinct.  It was Europeans who thought of them as different from each other.  The people lived in villages where the food supply would support them (mostly hunting, fishing and gathering) and when the group grew too large for that system, they would start a new village down river or at the next river.  So the languages are variations of the same tongue, and the people were identified by the places they lived, or by characteristics of those places.

Most of the students in the class are Wabanaki tribal members learning to speak their own language, as much was lost during the era of boarding schools.  Now there are efforts among children and adults to revitalize the language while there are still Native speakers.  Roger has been involved in teaching children on the reservation.  But why am I interested, as a white person, to learn this language?  Years ago, when I was first learning about the challenges that face Indigenous people, I got involved in the issue of cultural appropriation–the theft of Native spiritual practices by non-Native peoples, especially in New Age settings. (See more on that at Wanting to Be Indian.)

I remember one Indigenous writer saying, “If you really want to learn about our spirituality, learn our language.” I’ve learned a lot from Native authors such as Robin Wall Kimmerer talking about some of the key differences between Indigenous language and English.  Particularly, Kimmerer speaks about the idea of animacy and inanimacy as embedded in the syntax.  Trees, animals, plants, rivers are never referred to as “objects” or as “it” in her language.  They are alive, animate.  All the verbs and pronouns are organized around whether you are referring to something alive, or inanimate.  The language we speak affects how we think about our world.  The English language has colonized this place, made the land and water and creatures into “its.”

I want to learn Wabanaki Languages to better understand Wabanaki people and culture, and this place in which I live, the language native to this place.  I want to help decolonize my mind, and learn to think in a new way.

Counting Tree Rings

Cut pine

During the construction for the new Hall School, they have cut down acres of trees.  It truly breaks my heart.  Especially when I saw a stack of huge pines from the front of the school.  This one I measured at about 33 inches in diameter–just about the same as our beloved old white pine in our yard, though I didn’t have a way to tell how high up on the trunk it would have been.  Why do people cut down the old ones?

I tried to count the rings using my photos–and determined that it was at least 120-125 years old, if not more.  That means that this tree was around back in 1897, when my grandmother Yvonne was born.  It also might mean that our white pine, if it isn’t 162 years old as we estimated by circumference is likely at least 122 years old.  I would guess that there were similar circumstances for all of these pines in the neighborhood.

IMG_5008You see, I have been walking around the neighborhood looking for any other large pines I can find, and measuring them.  I haven’t found one larger than ours yet. Yesterday near the brook and the school, I found one that measured 102″ in circumference–just like ours.  It was wrapped in caution tape–does that mean leave it alone?  It is right next to an access drive of some kind next to the school. I hope the tape means leave it alone.

There are two more white pines in yards at the crossroads of our street that I want to measure when I get a chance, plus one right next door that rises a few feet away from our garage.  I think these might be similar in age to ours.  It would be easier to measure with two people doing it, plus I feel a bit awkward about going into people’s yards without a conversation.

What the close-by pines say to me is that when someone was building houses in this neighborhood in 1967 or so, they decided not to cut down these special old trees.  I am grateful for that.  But are they the remnants of a much larger family?



1870 Nasons Corner

[1870 Westbrook & Deering Map Detail]

Old maps can be another useful tool for looking at the story of the land.  I was lucky to find a map of Westbrook & Deering from 1870, just before they were divided into those two towns in 1871.  On the detail picture above, Westbrook is pink and Deering is golden. At that time, the land where we live was a blank space on the map in Deering, underneath the Portland and Rochester Railroad (the tracks are still there, but not the trains), to the right of the road that would later be Riverside Street, and north of the road that would later be Brighton Avenue, above the designation “Nasons Corner.”

And from Wikipedia:  (italics and links added)

The area around outer Brighton Avenue is Nasons Corner. While part of the independent town of Deering in the 1890s, the area was primarily agricultural, with acres of strawberries and fields of hay. Capisic Brook runs through part of the neighborhood, and its banks were home to the Lucas and Hamblet family-run brickyards, which were sold throughout New England. In 1898, Nasons Corner and the rest of Deering was annexed by the City of Portland. The earliest housing developments in the neighborhood were built beginning around that time and were called Brighton Avenue Terrace and Portland Garden (now Holm Street and Taft Street). The Glenwood project was underway by 1900. It included affordable bungalow style homes named for English counties (Devon, Dorset, Essex and Warwick).

(The annexation of Deering, by the way, was apparently against the will of its inhabitants.)

So perhaps for a long while, the place where the white pine tree grew was a strawberry field or hay field.  Or maybe it was the place behind those fields where the people didn’t get to, just birds and other animals doing their own thing.  Learning these stories changes the way I feel as I walk around my neighborhood.  I think about a land with no concrete on it, no roads, no buildings.

Portland Gardens

About a hundred years ago, in 1912, Jacob Wilbur decided to “develop” the large area of  land in which the old white pine tree lived and is living.  He purchased it from H.H. Holm. He called it “Portland Gardens,” but the first thing that happened was that he had a plan created in which the open land was divided into very small rectangles.  Over the years, some roads were created and houses built, but the area in the upper left corner of the plan–where our old pine lives–was never completed.

Plot plan Portland Gardens

In 1924 that area was sold to Amato Kataruchi, and then a couple years later the City of Portland took possession of it for taxes unpaid.  In 1969 the city sold it cheaply to the D—– family that had bought our house when it was first built in 1967. (Our house is actually in an adjacent development that was called Sunset Heights–it was “developed” by a firm called Jordan and Hammond in 1967.)

I learned all of this by searching online land records and deeds via the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds.  After thinking about the pine tree’s possible 162 year life, I was inspired to see what I could learn about the history of the land to which we now belong.  I didn’t realize how easy it was for anyone to trace one aspect of the history of their land through deeds, its so-called “ownership.” And, I didn’t realize the challenges either.  The boundaries of our yard were formed in 1969 through the combination of two lots–front (where the house is) and back–which in our deed is actually described as four small lots, and a corner of another.

So I could trace the “owners” of our yard from us back to the D—– family, with three families/individuals in between.  But prior to 1967, I had to start searching separately the front and back sections–the back section leading me to the Portland Gardens development plan in 1912.  Then the search got even more complicated because tracking how the developers acquired the land meant investigating multiple sellers, and entirely different descriptions of the land.  Still working on that.

All of this feels important to me as part of understanding our relationship to this land, and as part of a decolonization process–moving beyond the norms of our society which treats land as a possession, rather than as the place to which we might belong. And understanding the many ways that colonizers sought to acquire land–through purchase, through theft, through trickery, and through misinterpreting the early agreements made with indigenous peoples–they treated the offer to settle here in right relationship with the indigenous people as instead granting ownership of the land for whatever use they might want to make of it.

There are so many land records in the registry of deeds.  So many pieces of paper dividing the land into large and small pieces. There are whole professions built up around establishing who owns or owned what pieces of land.  Title insurance, title search companies, and all the rest.  I want to understand the history, but it is wearying to track such an ultimately destructive operation.  My ancestors were not part of this process here in Maine, but perhaps by learning more about this land right here, I can better understand the process as it happened over the whole continent.  It is a long story of the ways those of us who have European descent broke our relationship to the land and to her peoples.