Wolasuweltom

“When you think in Passamaquoddy, your whole life revolves around being thankful for everything that’s around you,” says Roger Paul, our Wabanaki Languages teacher.  “Everything about what you look at, or what somebody tells you, you think gratitude.” The root verb for giving thanks is wolasuweltom (he or she gives thanks, is grateful). To say “thank you” to someone you say “Woliwon.”  

He went on to comment, “…in other cultures I’ve noticed it’s about, ‘What am I to gain from this?’, …or ‘What’s my goal?'”  He told a story about a woman he met in Washington, DC, who wondered why Indigenous people didn’t come to testify in Congress about why they needed certain funding–they might send lawyers or other non-Native employees to explain–but she had never seen an actual Indigenous person explain why they needed this funding.

Roger said, “It took me a while, but I figured it out. …The reason, I told her, was because we’re not about going to demand what we deserve. We’re about being thankful for what we already have… So… we’re not good at going up to say, ‘Hey, we deserve this–we have an entitlement to this–you owe us this.’ …We’re more at, ‘Oh, this is all we get? But, you know what, I can use this. Thank you.'”  He said, “It’s that attitude, that almost every word in our language surrounds that concept of gratitude.”

All this was during a conversation among a few of us before class last month.  Ironically, earlier that morning I had been thinking about my final presentation, in which we were supposed to introduce ourselves in the language.  I had thought to myself that perhaps I should try to say something about why, as a non-Wabanaki person, I wanted to learn to speak Passamaquoddy.  What was my purpose or goal in doing this?  In English, I have said, I wanted to “decolonize my mind and learn to think in a new way.”  But I couldn’t figure out how to express what I meant in the language, even with the help of the online dictionary.

So when Roger spoke of how the language itself was not so much about expressing goals, as it was about giving thanks, I was struck by the irony of it all.  Here I was, even in my attempts to speak the language, thinking exactly like a white person.  And maybe, the goals and purposes didn’t matter as much as I thought they did.  Maybe I should try to say, instead, what I am thankful for.

Later, I asked Roger if it would be okay to quote him for the blog, and he gave me a generous yes.  I am thankful for all of these conversations, more than I can say.  These days, I am less and less sure of the purpose of anything I am doing.  I am less and less sure of my goals.  But I am reminded, each morning, to give thanks for everything around me.

Ducks in Spring

Advertisements

Ancestors and Whiteness

Can learning about our own ancestors help white people in undoing white supremacy and colonization? Or could it possibly be a distraction from the real work? When did our ancestors become “white” instead of German or Ukrainian or French or Irish? How did it happen? If our ancestors owned land, when and how did that happen, especially in relationship to the stealing of land from Indigenous peoples?

We were talking about these questions in my Maine-Wabanaki REACH group last night. It has been helpful to join in a small group with other white folks committed to the process of ending racism and colonization. We ponder the difficult questions together, in the context of the wider work of Maine-Wabanaki REACH which is in conversation and solidarity with Wabanaki people.

It seemed to us that understanding our families’ histories in the context of colonization, can help us to better understand colonization, and to make it visceral and real for us.  It is not just recounting the stories we may have heard in our families, or read about in research, but juxtaposing those stories with the history of colonization, land theft, and slavery, in the particular locations in which they lived.

I have already done a lot of exploring of the matrilineal side of my family.  Last night, after the meeting, I wondered how this might have played out on the other side of my family–my patrilineal ancestry.  My dad’s ancestors came to this country from Germany.  But more specifically, his great-grandfather and great-grandmother arrived in Illinois as children in 1851 and 1854 from East Friesland. East Friesland was actually a somewhat isolated culture on the North Sea with its own community and language, in some ways more closely related to Holland and old English than German.

Thousands of East Frisians came to the midwest during the middle of the 19th century, drawn by the promise of cheap fertile land and a long-standing love of freedom. Most of them worked for a few years, then were able to buy land, and become successful farmers, from what I can gather.  In America, they formed closely knit communities centered around their church, their family and their language.  But over the course of three generations, the young people had assimilated into the surrounding communities, and no longer spoke their parents’ language.

By the time the East Frisians arrived in Illinois, it had already been colonized for several generations.  But the name gives a clue.  On the Illinois State Museum website, I read about the Illinois peoples losing their lands.

In 1803, the Kaskaskia tribe signed a treaty giving up its land claims in the present State of Illinois in exchange for two small reservations on the Kaskaskia and Big Muddy rivers. The Peoria, in turn, ceded their Illinois claims in a separate treaty signed in 1818. Finally, in 1832, two years after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes agreed to merge and moved west to a reservation in Kansas.

So I wonder if the German immigrants even knew about the history of the land they were so excited about farming?  More research surely to do about all that.

In the course of this research, I may have coincidentally solved a mystery that had recently emerged in my DNA reports.  According to my DNA analysis, 15.3% of my ancestors came from the British Isles.  But from my genealogy research, I thought that number should be just 3% (my Scottish ancestry).  I didn’t think I had any other British or Irish ancestry.  So what was that other 12%? Was there some family secret I hadn’t heard about?  Well, I learned online that East Frisian DNA is indistinguishable from that of the British Isles.  So rather than a secret in the family tree, I think this 12% might be my great-grandfather Henry Johnson (also known as Heinrich Jansen), who was 100% East Frisian.

And when did they become white?  Well, I’ve got to stop for today, but I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, a 1920 census with Henry Johnson listed–see between the blurred out parts.  And the “W” next to his name.

Henry Johnson 1920 census section

Broken Histories

Mab Segrest, in her book, Born to Belonging, examined the effect that the institution of slavery has had on the self-understanding of people in America, particularly the white people of her own family. She believes that a kind of spiritual anesthesia developed—a cutting off of compassion and connection—in order for a person to own slaves.

She ponders what it did to a man’s soul to sell his own children. Though it was not openly discussed, it was true that many of the children born into slavery had been fathered by the owner of the plantation. White people had to cut off their emotions, deny their relationships, and numb their spirits, to maintain this horrible institution for four centuries.

Segrest believes that the emphasis on individualism in America is an expression of our spiritual distress. We are all born into families, each with their own histories of disconnection or oppression that can cause a numbing of the soul. It feels less painful to imagine ourselves as separate, than to acknowledge the abusive and traumatic relationships that have closed our hearts. But when we close our hearts, we also lose our capacity for deep joy. We are not fully alive without each other.

Shortly after I first came to Maine, I visited Indian Island, home of the Penobscot Nation, in a trip sponsored by the Four Directions Development Corporation. During a beautiful traditional lunch that was prepared for us, we heard about some of the long history of brokenness between white people and indigenous people in Maine, as researched by Donna Loring, who at that time was the Penobscot representative in our State House of Representatives. Near the end she spoke of her belief that America needs to remember its roots. She wasn’t speaking of its ideals of freedom and democracy. Rather she meant that we cannot find the way to peace until we revisit our brokenness.

It is uncomfortable and painful to embrace our brokenness. But if we hope to find wholeness, we must be willing to hear the stories that we tried to forget. To return to wholeness is not to paint over the past with easy brush strokes, but to make awkward and painful attempts to cross over into the experience of the other. It takes a long time, and a lot of courage. In my experience, it is often easier to feel at one with nature than to feel at one with our fellow human beings. But I have also experienced, after the awkwardness, moments of grace and connection. Moments when we talk and share from our hearts, and feel a sense of wholeness restored.

Broken Rock DSC00135

Photo by Margy Dowzer