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Beyond the Claims— Stories from the Land + the Heart

by Kate Russell | Project Coordinator, Wabanaki REACH

It’s through a dynamic emergent process of confrontation with the truth that solutions arise. Trauma involves a lifelong pushing down— a tremendous expenditure of energy– into not feeling the pain. As we heal, that same energy is liberated for life and for being in the present. So the energy of trauma can be transformed into the energy of life. Dr. Gabor Maté

I didn’t know much about the land claims when I started this work. I knew something of stories. Most of us do. Truth-telling is another matter– or, is it?

Wabanaki REACH’s newest truth-telling initiative goes Beyond the Claims to get at the heart of the land, its people, and their stories. At the center of this project is the long and complicated history of the Maine Indian land claims, including the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 (MICSA) and the Maine Implementing Act (MIA), which still deeply impact folks in Wabanaki and Maine communities today.

This project, guided by Wabanaki traditions and ways of being and knowing, aims to deepen REACH’s crucial work of truth, healing, and change in the Dawnland. By gathering personal oral histories across a full spectrum of experiences we hope to create resources that will demystify the legislation, humanize those who have been affected by it, amplify their voices, preserve their stories for cultural continuity, and, most importantly, make space for healing to happen.

Storytelling may be as old as fire, but the process of preserving oral histories began in the last century. Though a compelling oral history interview is well researched in advance, the actual act is less a test of factual accuracy and linear timelines, and more of holding space for a person’s felt experience to emerge– often meeting it with words for the first time. When REACH Executive Director Maria Girouard mentions her intention to “move the conversation from the head to the heart,” I imagine this is why she chose storytelling as the conduit.

To begin this project, we have garnered a team of story collectors who are learning how to conduct oral history interviews, and artfully navigate the room of someone’s heart once it is opened to them. By audio recording their time together, we are able to preserve these stories for future generations replete with the nuances of our shared humanity– a pregnant pause as one ventures back into their memory, the well of emotion brimming in the throat, a particular cadence, a laugh.

It is in this meaningful space, between the story collector and the storyteller, where truth-telling and healing can happen. When we enter into this room, the story collector becomes a midwife armed with the humble tools of breath, curiosity, and active listening to guide the storyteller through. As the storyteller, courageous as they are, illuminates the truth of their experience with vulnerability and voice, they inevitably reveal both themselves and history anew.

Only by deepening our understanding of MICSA and its historical context through truth-telling, can we hope for cultural healing and recovery– not only for Wabanaki people, but for the land and water they long to restore and protect.

I didn’t know much about the land claims when I started this work, because so much of our shared history has been erased from the conversation. Our hope is that Beyond the Claims– Stories from the Land + the Heart may help to change that.

Healing begins with truth. Truth begins with a story. A story is the shape our truth takes so someone can step inside of it– a place where, for a time, we are no longer alone. In the coming years, as we build an archive and so much more– I hope you’ll step inside and listen.

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