When I was first approached to work on TRC efforts, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. As a Penobscot historian, I was well aware of the legacy of trauma that Wabanaki people had endured in our ancestral territory, now referred to as “Maine.” Focusing on the small snapshot of time the TRC was exploring (1970 to present) felt overwhelmingly small and oppressive, given the vastness and complexity of Maine tribal-state relations. I decided that building historical context would be what I could uniquely offer the process, and I stepped into my role with a true caring, love, and appreciation for Wabanaki people and our history.
Working for truth, healing, and change has been greatly fulfilling, although oftentimes emotionally draining. Constantly recounting the traumas that my ancestors endured feels heavy at times, especially when our educational outreach efforts have me visiting Maine communities whose identities are steeped in sugarcoated versions of colonial history. Visiting the coastal town of Castine, for instance, I did not have to look very far for examples of historical trauma. Their town’s own historical signage boasts the conquest of my ancestors and refers to propagandist history, or “twist-ory,” that disrespects Penobscot Chief Madockawando—a chief whose name in Penobscot is descriptive of the high level of spiritual attainment for which he was recognized by his own people.
Building historical context also happens in our tribal communities. While not everyone is intimately aware of the history we have endured, many live in the aftermath of the grief and trauma. Understanding our history and the purposeful undermining of our families and culture is pivotal to our understanding of the social and economic hardship that surrounds us. The history of Indian residential boarding schools is a history of how our families and communities were severely disrupted. Native children removed from their families and from traditional teachings, abused and unloved, returned home after their stays in boarding schools angry, traumatized, and not knowing how to parent lovingly.
I use the analogy of a person who has long been sick and who has been unable to pinpoint their sickness. Learning about the historical trauma that our ancestors and relations have had to endure feels like a long-awaited diagnosis—finally we can understand what is wrong with us, and it is not our fault. Important to recounting our history is ensuring that Wabanaki people understand and appreciate the fact that we are survivors. Where there were once 20 distinct Wabanaki tribes in present-day “Maine,” now only five remain. We have survived. Following an educational film screening and discussion in my Penobscot community, one elderly woman said to me, “It’s no wonder it’s been so hard for me to love. I was in a boarding school when I was young, and I’ve always had a problem with how to love.”
At an educational panel discussion hosted by a church group from Ellsworth, a woman approached me with tears in her eyes. “It must be hard to not despair,” she suggested to me. I thought about this statement for a minute and then decided to share with her what keeps me hopeful. Our traditional teachings tell us that all the historical trauma that we endured had been predicted by our ancestors in a series of prophecies. This I have always found astounding, and apparently she did too. It has been this knowing that prevents me from drowning in despair because our traditional teachings also prophesied a period of great healing. If humankind could identify our common ground and understand our interconnectedness, peaceful harmony was possible. Elders have described this great healing as one that could sweep across Turtle Island, from East to West, like the light of a new dawn—but only if we can come together.
Through my work of supporting the TRC efforts, ushering in truth, healing, and change in my ancestral homeland, I feel I am working for the ancestors while working for all descendants at the same time. I remind people that this is not just Wabanaki history, or Penobscot history; this is our collective history of how we have lived in this place. Telling their stories to the commissioners is often an excruciatingly painful experience, yet many persons courageously step forward and in so doing are contributing to individual and community healing. I remind people that together we are writing our grandchildren’s history, and that we all are active participants. I invite them to join us on a journey of truth, healing, and change.
Executive Director, Wabanaki REACH