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.

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Keeping Stories

Last week, while cleaning out my files in the office at church, I was remembering so many wonderful stories of the work of this congregation on behalf of social justice.  I found myself wondering, “Who will keep these stories after I am gone?”  After 13 years of ministry here, I have become too much the keeper of institutional memory.  It was hard to recycle or shred old meeting notes and flyers and public witness statements.

Today, though, I am remembering that many of these stories of justice-making found their way into our Annual Reports.  Funny thing, Annual Reports.  I bet for most people, they are glanced at during an annual meeting, and then filed away, or even tossed away.  But they can be a useful tool for keeping stories.  After I had been serving this congregation for about a year, I took a week just to read the annual reports from 1980 up to 2006.  It helped me to understand the journey that the people had traveled, the stories from before I arrived.

So today–probably my last day of cleaning in the office–I am taking some moments to look at old Annual Reports–and share a few tidbits of some of the great activism I have witnessed and participated in here.  In 2005-6, we were part of a “No on One” referendum to prevent a repeal attempt of the state’s new anti-discrimination legislation for GLBTQ people.  Our Social Action committee made 2500 bumper stickers-My Church Believes in Civil Rights for All, and distributed them around the state.  (Thank you, Jim!) Not to mention rallies and forums and so much more–the repeal attempt was defeated!

That year, we also participated in the Giving Winds Campaign, a capital campaign of the Maine Council of Churches for Four Directions Development Corporation, which provides small business and home-owner loans to people on Wabanaki reservations in Maine.  We visited two reservations, hosted Wabanaki representatives during worship, and held a forum on Indian Affairs.  We donated over $2000, and members made loans through the church totalling $12000 that were matched by the UUA and the Federal Government.  Some of that loan money is still being used by FDDC!

In 2006-7, some of our members were on the advisory board for a new Portland Freedom Trail, celebrating the Underground Railroad in Portland, and other sites of importance to African American history in our city.  Other members created a quilt to be used in the unveiling of the first pedestal, and over a dozen people participated as docents for the grand opening event. You can find a self-guided walking tour online.

From 2007-2009, we were involved with work on a campaign for the Freedom to Marry for same-sex couples. We were part of creating the interfaith Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine, (later it became the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination), and many people testified at a huge public hearing.  The bill was successfully passed by our legislature, a first in the country, but then immediately went to a people’s veto referendum.  Sadly, despite the active involvement of so many, the veto campaign prevailed and marriage rights were not achieved.

But people did not give up, and our church was part of the long attempt to pass the Freedom to Marry by referendum.  Our members were among the many volunteers going door-to-door having conversations with undecided voters, they were phone-bank callers, and they created another great bumper sticker.  Finally, victory was achieved on November 6, 2012.

I like to keep my blog posts to about 600 words, so I am running out of room to add more stories. And I haven’t even mentioned the campaign for Health Care for All, which percolated within our doors, and is now a statewide organization, Maine All Care.  I haven’t mentioned our three-year Environmental Focus, our participation in protesting oil from Tar Sands (see the photo below), work on climate change, and our Permaculture Design course.  And what about work on peace issues, homelessness, anti-racism, immigration, and the latest project, Greater Portland Family Promise?

It will be up to the members of Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church to keep their own stories now.  I hope they will peek into old Annual Reports if they need to remember the old stories, and I hope they will make many new stories as well.Tar Sands Rally

Cascoak

Our Beloved KinI was excited to hear Lisa Brooks speak at the Maine Historical Society last night.  Lisa is the author of Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, which is an amazing narrative.  She goes back to original documents and source material, combined with local Indigenous knowledge to reexamine the stories of the New England colonies and the Indigenous peoples during the later 1600s, particularly the unfolding of hostilities that came to be known as King Philip’s War.  I wrote about some of my first impressions in an earlier post.

In her talk, she focused on the parts of the book that were about Wabanaki territory, what we now know as Maine.  One of the things I especially noticed was the name of this place–greater Portland–before it was occupied by settlers–Cascoak.  The Fore River used to be called the Casco River.

I learned more about Skitterygusset, the sachem who first made an agreement for a settler to live near Capisic Brook and its uplands (where Margy and I now live).  Lisa talked about how after the deaths from disease that happened during first contact, many native people were building new alliances between regions, through marriage and family relationships.  Thus, Skitterygusset cannot be understood apart from his relationship to his sister, Warrabitta, who was the leader of Owaskoag (now Scarborough).  Women were often rulers, especially in places where planting fields were located, since women were responsible for the planting fields.  Owashkoag was a sweetgrass gathering place.  Their brother, Sagawetton, lived with his wife on the Saco River.

In settler narratives, when they talk about Indian raids, they write as if the hostilities were random acts of violence.  But Lisa talked about how the raids were focused on settlers who were upsetting the balance of communal subsistence living.  One example was the settlers who had built their houses at Amancongon, which was an important planting field on the Presumpscot River (now part of Westbrook).  Another target was to burn the mills, set up at falls on multiple rivers.  By the time of the “Indian wars” there were 50 saw mills that had been built: they cut and harvested the huge white pines of the forest, processing 1000 feet a day of pine board.  Destruction of the forests meant destruction of the game that was hunted.  The mills also prevented fish from migrating upriver, thus cutting off another important source of food.

I have to stop for now, but I was newly inspired in my quest to understand the history of this place.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

 

Red Oak

Red Oak Leaves AcornsThe mild weather has revealed old oak leaves and acorns all over the ground on the trail by the brook, as well as the back of our yard.  The trees in our yard are young, but there are many old ones in the neighborhood.  In the fall there were literally thousands of acorns underfoot all along the streets and the trail.  It got me thinking about acorns as a food source–roasted and ground into flour.

Unfortunately, I finally learned that all of these neighborhood acorns are from the northern red oak, whose Wabanaki name referred to its bitter acorn.  Acorns from the white oak and the burr oak were much preferred for eating because they are sweeter.  Still, I am thrilled to know their names.  All this from the book Notes on a Lost Flute, by Kerry Hardy, including a helpful diagram of the shape of each type of leaf and acorn.  After seeing the pictures, I paid attention to all the oak leaves along my walk–all red oak.  Simply put, the red oak leaves have pointed edges, while the white oaks have rounded lobes. Sometimes it helps to simplify–there are actually about 600 oak species overall, and 8 in Maine.

Researching further, I learned in A Short History of Trees in Portland, that there are stands of white oak in Baxter Woods and Deering Oaks park.  Now I am delighted to imagine walking there in the spring to see if I can find those trees.  In the meantime, another storm is on the way, and it will soon all be covered again in a foot of snow.

More White Pines

White Pine near Capisic

There is another old white pine that I see on my morning walks, next to the the Capisic Brook near my home.  Even as the old white pine at my home sent me on a search for the history of this land, so both of these pines lead me into a search for their spiritual meaning.  Maine is called the Pine Tree state, and the White Pine is the state tree.

When settlers first came to this land, they found old growth forests with white pines being the tallest of the trees in the east.  Many of them were cut down to use as masts on the English ships. In fact, any straight tree over 24 inches in diameter was marked for use by the king, but people often ignored that marking.  I read that the old-growth trees were all cut by the mid 1800s.

In the same article, they identify two old pines found in Acadia National Park as 154 and 147 years old.  That made me wonder if the method I had used to date the white pine in our back yard was accurate–if that pine was actually 162 years old, it should be on the EasternOldList.  On the other hand, if the land was undeveloped for a hundred fifty years, (just a blank space on the map) perhaps it would not be so impossible that it should be counted among these old ones.

Pine needles are full of vitamin C, and the inner bark was also edible–made into a kind of flour by the Wabanaki people here.  Among the Haudenosaunee, the white pine was the Tree of Peace–symbol of their confederation of nations, the five nations symbolized in the five needles in one packet, and the agreements they made to keep peace among their nations.

Modern science has discovered that pine trees release compounds known as phytoncides, airborne chemicals which protect the trees through anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.  These compounds also support the “natural killer” cells of our human immune system.  So walking in the woods has actually been proven to be good for our physical and mental health.

While searching the internet for the meaning of the white pine, I found that another blogger The Druid’s Garden posted this:

In my experience, these trees retain their roles as peacemakers for us today in order to rebuild human-land connections. Often on damaged lands, even if no other spirits or trees are open to communication, the White Pine will be the intermediary.

Since my purpose in learning about the trees on my land is to rebuild our human-land connection, I may see if our white pine is willing to offer that mediation.

The Old White Pine

White pine familyContinuing my passion of learning about the mature trees in our yard, I found myself drawn to the biggest tree here–a white pine near the southwest corner of our land.  It is among several smaller pines that extend into the undeveloped land near our yard.  I found a resource that helps estimate the age of a tree.  It goes like this:  measure the circumference of the tree at about chest height (54 inches).  Divide by 3.14 (pi) to get the diameter of the trunk.  Multiply that number by the “growth factor” of the tree, which can be found on a chart.  In the case of white pine, the growth factor is five.

So today, I measured its girth as about 102″, which gives a diameter of about 32.5″.  Multiplied by five, the estimate of the tree’s age is 162 years old.  That means it might have begun its life around the year 1856.  I was intrigued by what might have been going on during that time, and discovered some interesting historical facts about our land.  At that time, we were part of Saccarappa–in 1871 Saccarappa divided into Westbrook and Deering, and we were likely part of Deering after that, before Deering was incorporated into Portland.  In 1855, the Evergreen Cemetery was established, just several blocks around the corner from us. In 1854, S.D. Warren bought the mill in Westbrook at Amancongan, which had in ancient days been a Native farm site.

I followed my questions down the internet wormhole, and made some other discoveries. This land first came into the record of English settlers when the sagamore (leader) Skitterygussett signed a deed with the fisherman Francis Small in 1657.  In many historical accounts, they claim Small bought the land “from the marshes and uplands of Capissic” to the fishing falls at Amancongan on the south side of the Presumpscot River. But my new favorite book by Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, actually talks about this very deed on page 21.

She says that Small pledged an annual “pay” of “one trading coat,” which was a symbolic recognition of Skitterygusset’s leadership, and “one gallon of liquor.”

The exchange of wampum and tobacco, as Small later testified, in this and subsequent agreements, sealed a pledge to share space, creating a negotiated relationship as much as an economic transaction.  He later sold the rights to part of this tract, including a mill privilege at Capissic, to John Phillips, who transferred it to his son-in-law George Munjoy, both of whom had come to Casco from Boston.

Brooks explores the significance of this and other deeds from the perspective of the Indigenous people who contracted them.  In reference to a similar deed, she says:

…these leaders of Cascoak were entrusted with diplomacy. Thus, part of their role  was to create responsible relationships with the newcomers.  With [these agreements], they gave [particular families] permission to live [on these lands,] but negotiated some of the terms of sharing space and required “acknowledgement” of their continuing relationship to and leadership in this place.  As Alice Nash has observed, such “deeds should be read more like proto-treaties” or councils in which rights, land use, and jurisdiction were negotiated, rather “than as simple property transactions.”

While I was looking at a modern day map to place these descriptions, I noticed that the public housing development in our neighborhood is called Sagamore Village–most likely in a (perhaps misguided) recognition of the sagamore who negotiated that first deed about this land.

There were many more complications after that first deed–all of the settlers were gone from the area during 1690 to 1730, because of conflicts with the Indigenous inhabitants.  Later, when people came back or new settlers came, they had disputes on who actually “owned” the land, the heirs of the first deed makers, or the new settlers.  But that is a different story than today’s.

The white pine tree inspired me to explore the history it may have seen, and I found myself drawn much deeper.  I wonder now, was this pine descended from earlier pines that were cut down to send posts for ship’s masts to England?  How many other stories might be hidden in its branches and roots?

Names & Shadows

Shadows

Ousamequin of Pokanoket, the Massasoit “great sachem” (sôgemak).  Weetamoo, also known as Namumpum, female leader/sachem (sôgeskwak) of Pocasset. Wamsutta of Pokanoket, son of Ousamequin, husband of Weetamoo. Wootonakanuske, sister of Weetamoo, wife of Metacom. Metacom also known as Philip, son of Ousamequin, husband of Wootonakanuske. Tuspaquin of Nemasket, son-in-law of Ousamequin, husband of Amie. Amie of Nemasket, daughter of Ousamequin, wife of Tuspaquin. Awashonks of Sakonnet, Conbitant, father of Weetamoo, sachem of Pocasset. Nanamocomuck, Penacook, son of Passaconaway, Penacook. (Wampanoags)

I have been reading Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, by Lisa Brooks. It is an amazing narrative, in which she goes back to original documents and source material, combined with local Indigenous knowledge to reexamine the stories of the New England colonies and the Indigenous peoples during the later 1600s, particularly the unfolding of hostilities that came to be known as King Philip’s War.

Reading this book has unlocked a deeper process of decolonizing my mind. What I have been most struck by are the individual stories, the actual names of individual people and the places in which they lived, planted, fished, traveled, escaped, returned.  How they were related and how they negotiated and were ambassadors on behalf of their relatives. How they adapted and resisted and strategized. Their names and their stories.

Warrabitta (female leader) of Owaskoag. Skitterygusset, her brother. Sagawetton, her brother, who lived with his wife on the Saco River.  (Wabanaki leaders around Casco Bay).  Canonicus, Miantonomo, sachems, Quaiapin of Woossowenbiskw, female sachem. Mixxano her husband, Scuttup and Quequegunent, her sons. Ninigret, her brother, leader of Niantic. Cojonoquant, cousin of Mixxano. (Narragansett leaders). James Printer, or Wawaus, a Nipmuc scholar from Hassanamesit.

Brooks brings to light people who had been hidden in the narratives told by the English settlers, people who had been hidden in the shadows as “Native people in the wilderness who were conquered by the English settlers.”  But–of course–they had names.  They had towns and regions and farms. They had families, with names.  Our Beloved Kin is a dense and long book (346 pages not counting the notes), slow reading, ultimately devastating because of the betrayals of the colonists which we anticipate throughout. But even the betrayals are identified specifically to people with names, betrayed by other people with names. I have only listed a few of the hundreds of people she identifies.

Because I speak English, I have had to say “female leader” in these lists to note that in fact there were female leaders. Among the Indigenous peoples of this region, the words for Sachem, or leader, were gendered, (sôgemak) (sôgeskwak) but to have a female leader was no more unusual than to have a male leader.  Just thought I should note that.

There is no way to convey here the immensity of what Lisa Brooks brings from out of the shadows into the light. I imagine that a lot of people won’t try to navigate this exposition. But if you care about our relationship to this land, and to the people of this land, it is mind-blowing.