Collaborating to Restore Native Voices

 

A Native American scholar and Harvard professor shows how reasserting Wabanaki stories can provide a more replete understanding of regional history. The Wabanaki-Bates-Bowdoin-Colby collaboration continues.

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Janice Kassman
 

WBBC
Colby students teach a music lesson at a Wabanaki school.
When Harvard Professor Lisa Brooks was growing up, her father, an Abenaki Indian, used to tell her, “There's a reason American history moves from the Pilgrims right to the American Revolution. That was 150 years that the natives were in charge.”

In March Brooks gave the keynote address for Colby's event in the Wabanaki- Bates-Bowdoin-Colby collaborative program, and she made a good start on her lecture title: Restoring Wabanaki Voices in Literature and History.

Brooks told stories and read preserved documents, awikhigan in the Abenaki language, that showed deep insights and nuanced strategies from the Native American side of negotiations over land and water rights and armed conflicts. She cited Wabanaki men and women from Maine's Presumpscot River (which drains Sebago Lake through what is now Westbrook and Portland) and Casco Bay region and the Connecticut (Kwinitekw) River valley—leaders who understood and deftly navigated the push and pull of cultural conflict on the European-Wabanaki frontier.

Loron, a Penobscot orator, for example, signed an awikhigan that succinctly laid out the Wabanaki understanding of land rights, and that said of the Treaty of Casco Bay, “These writings appear to contain things that are not.”

Polin, a contemporary, negotiated with Massachusetts Gov. Jonathan Belcher in the early 1700s to rein in Colonel Thomas Westbrook's ambitious dam building on the Presumpscot, which was depriving Polin's people of the fish they depended on. Rather than merely condemn the dams, Polin requested that fish passage be accommodated. Belcher agreed but had little effect on Westbrook's voracious development initiatives, Brooks said.

The WBBC collaborative was launched in May 2007 when presidents of the three colleges met with chiefs of the four Wabanaki tribes on Indian Island in Maine. The program may be unique in the nation as a partnership between colleges and local Native American tribes, said Colby's campus coordinator Janice Kassman, special assistant to the president.

The program incorporates early college awareness for Wabanaki middle school students, a summer aspirations program for 25 Maine Indian high school students, and academic and campus climate initiatives on the three college campuses to heighten awareness of Maine Indian history and culture. This year's annual spring-break service learning trip, March 21-25, will take nine Colby students (including one with Passamaquoddy and Cherokee heritage, one Ethiopian, and one Vietnamese student) to Maine's five reservations to visit schools there.

Brooks's lecture followed a panel discussion earlier in the day led by Maria Girouard, director of the Cultural and Historical Preservation Department of the Penobscot Nation, and Penobscot Nation tribal historian James Francis. Girouard and Francis detailed the ongoing effort to infuse Wabanaki culture, government, and history into public school curricula in Maine. The effort stems from state law, enacted in 2001, that requires public schools to include Wabanaki teachings.

“They didn't want schools to implement Indian class,” Francis said, explaining that the intent is to fold Wabanaki teachings into broader curriculum.

Francis and Girouard helped create resources for teachers and have led outreach and training efforts for educators infusing Wabanaki culture into their teaching. Curriculum units are available at www.penobscotculture.com.

“That,” Francis said, “has been a tremendous success.”

 
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