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Promoting Health and Wellness in Wabanaki Communities

Once again, the REACH dragonfly signifies how our organization is expanding in new and exciting ways. Dragonflies represent swiftness and activity; change and transformation; joy and happiness; adaptability; and an invitation to dive deeper into feeling and understanding.

We are happy that Brian Altvater has joined our team as the Wabanaki Wellness Coordinator, a position that was only ever held by Maria Girouard, who has been serving as our Executive Director for the past year.

In a 2017 blog post honoring Wabanaki women during Women’s History Month, Maria concluded by saying, ‘Wabanaki women, who endured centuries of unimaginable hardships and assaults on their way of being, were the backbone to their tribal nations and remain so today.’ 

In June 2012, at a ceremony at the State House where a mandate was signed to commence Wabanaki land’s historic and precedent-setting Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis referenced a popular quote to comment on the state of Wabanaki tribal nations today. Francis said, “They say that ‘a nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground’ and then it is done, but looking around the room today at the women’s strong leadership, I’d have to say that we are in pretty good shape.”’

Maria Girouard, who has served as the Wabanaki Wellness Coordinator for Maine-Wabanaki REACH since 2012, is one of those women taking strong actions in leadership on behalf of Wabanaki people and to protect our planet.

In early 2019, Maria assumed the responsibilities of being the REACH Executive Director for half of her time, while continuing to design and implement health and wellness programs and resources with the other half of her work time. What a difference that has made for REACH! As Maria began to oversee the direction of the organization, REACH’s programs and organizations grew stronger. Just one year later, REACH offered Maria the full time position of Executive Director.

We asked Maria to reflect on her experience as the Wabanaki Wellness Coordinator and her vision and hopes as she enters the role
of full-time Executive Director.

*     *     *

Maria began in the Wabanaki Wellness Coordinator role when the Truth Commission was conducting its investigation of the experiences of Native people in the Maine child welfare system. 

Maria sought to engage and support Wabanaki people in the Truth Commissions process. She remembered, “the TRC was jarring. The first part of the work was in relation to that. Implementing circles, warming up people’s voices so they could be heard.” Maria recalled that, “We started with resilience and created tools for people to use and workshops to support resilience, like self-soothing strategies and using the sacred medicines.”

As her work unfolded, she developed workshops and resources that were in response to needs in the community – workshops on trauma for counselors and social workers; Wellness Gathering for Wabanaki people from all communities; peace-making workshop to support the circles happening in Wabanaki communities and in Maine prisons with incarcerated Native people. Maria wants people to know that this Wellness work is “evolving. It can contain so much for each person, for the whole community – restorative justice, economic justice like cooperative economies. I like to approach wellness in an empowering way. We are resilient. We’re survivors, not hapless victims of trauma. There is no one way for wellness. That’s why we offered a wide variety of things in terms of healing (workshops with drums, art and healing, gardening).”

As Executive Director, Maria continues to lead, network, and cultivate resources on behalf REACH’s mission to advance Wabanaki self-determination by creating programs and resources to strengthen the cultural, spiritual and physical well-being of Native people in Maine. She is co-hosting Dawnland Signals, a monthly radio program on WERU to help elevate Wabanaki voices and ultimately benefit programs that support the well-being of Wabanaki people.  

She is leading the REACH organization by encouraging staff to bring forth their passions. And she wants community members to know that REACH is listening, welcoming feedback and ideas of what is appreciated and what else is needed. Maria goes on to say “I’ve spent my entire working career working for and with Wabanaki people. I intend to always do that. I bring a sense of loyalty to our communities and I feel accountable to the communities for what I am doing.”

She continues “There’s no shortage of things that can be done. There were some parts of the Wabanaki Wellness job that I hated to let go of - there was always a list of things I wanted to do.”

Since joining the team as the Wabanaki Wellness Coordinator, Brian Altvater would agree that there are so many wonderful things to be done. It feels funny to say “welcome” to him; he has been working to promote health and wellness in Wabanaki communities before REACH came into existence. Brian has played a leadership role in his community, worked with the Schoodic River Keepers to restore the St Croix River, and provided cultural connection to Wabanaki people in Maine prisons.

The prison work didn’t start easily. “There’s been times when I felt totally unwelcomed by the staff. Now the guards are protective of me. I think they thought it was a flash in the pan and it wasn’t going to last.” Brian knew something that the guards didn’t know, “We were told by the spirits that they will never be able to take the ceremonies away from us within the Maine prison system.”

Brian shared that he’s been on this path since the mid-90s. He brings his love of his community, family, and spirits’ guidance to do work that he believes in and that he loves to do. And now, he says, “I’m here. I’m available to work with others with similar beliefs as mine.” When asked why he wanted to work with REACH, he simply began by saying, “what REACH stands for – that’s how I live my life.” Knowing and trusting many people who are part of REACH, Brian had a sense that “if I came up with an idea – that it would be supported and embraced.”

“I love the prison work,” said Brian. He reflected on how he has benefitted from the work he has done in the prisons – sweats, talking circles, teaching circles. He recognized that the inmates respect him, saying that he has received “cards and drawings that they all sign. They write and ask for advice on different things – what I believe in spiritually and what I am teaching them. It’s a natural fit for me.”

Brian speaks passionately about our responsibility to live in balance with all things, to restore that balance. “Native people have been treated unfairly for generations. We have endangered our bees. We’ve made bats endangered. Now that we have this pandemic of Covid-19, it seems strange that it’s caused by bats. We’ve knocked things out of balance and we’re paying for it. I’ve lived in Sipayik all my life. I’ve never seen the tide go over the rail bed and the sweetgrass area. In the past ten years it’s happened 4 times!”

Brian recalled how people lived with the seasons, when everyone was involved with the “run of alewives, sardines, ground fish, raking blueberries, tipping to make wreaths, harvesting sweetgrass. The whole family would be clamdigging – they had to be a unit to survive. My gram told me when there were so many lobsters that people used them in their garden. Everyone had a garden.” Brian plans to engage people in doing things together “just to have fun and help each other out. Help people however you can help them. Don’t just look after your own – look after the whole tribe. Over the past 60 years, I’ve built alliances, contacts with people I know from all over the place.” He goes on to describe linking a greenhouse owner he’s known for years with people in the community who want to produce food. “It’s going to take a lot to bring the balance back and we have to start somewhere. In the circle we talk about having to be patient. It’s on spirits’ time not my time. When I want things to go my way, that’s not how it goes. My spiritual teacher told me that, ‘the alewives will go up the river again. You have to be patient.’”

“People are realizing that we all have to help one another, care for one another.” That is central to what Brian brings to REACH. Maria recognized that Brian is a respected elder and a humble man. So she hired him and is making way for Brian to do the job as he sees fit. He leads with love for and knowledge of his community and this earth that cares for us. “I care for you. The spirits care for you and are watching over you. Be patient. We’ll be wiser.”

We’re honored Brian has joined the REACH team.

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