When I was a kid, I was reluctant to spend the night away from home. I didn’t really go elsewhere overnight, like summer camp, until I was in high school. The summer I was fourteen, mandated by my mother and after exhausting an appeals process which may have included moping and adolescent eye-rolling, I spent a week at the camp associated with our church. Her instincts were right about the time and the place. It was the right time in my life to meet new friends. The community was kind, gentle, and affirming. The lakeside camp was beautiful. That week at camp planted seeds in my heart and mind that would bear a lifetime of fruit.
As a young adult my relationship with the place and its people deepened. I worked there many summers, and I eventually became involved in leadership. I continued to encounter the sacred there, in the beauty of the land and the compassion of the people. We often spoke of the natural beauty of the land, calling it a "thin place," a place where one could encounter God and learn to grow and live in a progressive Christian community. Working and volunteering there, I found a group of friends who have been my people for a lifetime. It was there I found my call to be a healthcare chaplain and clinical social worker.
During my training to be a healthcare chaplain, I learned to identify and reflect on parts of my social location: I am a queer, white, middle-class, cisgender male. Yet it was not until my training as a clinical social worker that I was challenged to identify myself as a settler, and my family and our history as part of the settler-colonial project. Part of this learning, for me, included volunteering for Wabanaki REACH. As my volunteering with REACH continued, I noticed silences in my family lore and formal education. Questions began to pop in my mind unbidden. What was the history of the land we lived on for generations? How and when was it acquired? What about the people who lived there before? How have we directly contributed to the destruction of the environment and the genocide of Wabanaki people?
One area of life that decolonization had studiously avoided in my mind was my relationship with my beloved summer camp. One evening, after participating in a presentation of the REACH program Interacting with Wabanaki-Maine History, I had a sudden and jarring insight about camp and colonization. Interacting with Wabanaki-Maine History is a participatory experience that tells the story of Native and non-native communities in this territory, with a particular focus on the theft of land and children from Native communities. That night I connected these dots between camp and colonization: The camp is in unceded Wabanaki territory. The land was stolen as part of a colonial project that also stole children from Wabanaki communities. The land was then used to raise the children of settlers in a loving religious environment that also perpetuated colonization. In other words, my experience of scared space and loving community as a child was at the direct cost of the land and lives of Wabanaki children. I was, and continue to be, horrified. I am still only beginning to understand what this means for my community.
What I do know is that many processes of colonization are woven into the fabric of life at camp. We do not have a land acknowledgement. There is silence about the history of the land and the stories of the people who were there before us. There is an unreflective acceptance of place names for the water and the land that are attributed to Native communities. There is a propensity to expand the footprint of the camp into untouched forest. As a Christian organization, there is silence about the Doctrine of Discovery, the doctrine which gave religious cover for colonization. And there is little recognition that certain stories from our tradition, specifically the story of the promised land, are endorsements of colonization.
My decolonization journey continues. My invitation for those of you who come from non-Native families, and who find the territory now called Maine to be sacred, is to join me in asking ourselves: what are the specific ways that our love for this place is dependent on the atrocities that were committed in this territory and the colonization that continues here? And, after a time of sitting with that, how will we respond? As non-Native people, can we sit for a time with these feelings without rushing to fix them? Then, how will we respond in ways that support the self-determination of Wabanaki people?
If decolonization is a bicycle, one pedal is understanding and one pedal is action. We need both for forward motion.
Rev. Ben Bigney is a REACH volunteer, clinical social worker and healthcare chaplain.