Saturday, February 2, 2013

How one white lady grew up in Maine knowing nothing about the Wabanaki people

Patricia Erikson with Makah Cultural and Research Center staff
Part I - When I lived on the Makah Indian Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, I was referred to as "the white lady with the yellow dog." I had never thought of myself as "a white lady" before, but that was because I grew up in skin that was not marked as "of color." I occupied that privileged position of not having to think about my own skin color at all. My work with the Makah Indian Nation taught me something that I didn't know: that I was a white lady who had grown up in Maine knowing absolutely nothing about the indigenous peoples of my own state, the Wabanaki people. But I am skipping ahead to when I knew this. Let's start at the beginning.

Growing up in rural Maine, my exposure to Native American peoples was, well, complicated.  I was lucky enough to experience one field trip at a very young age to the American Indian exhibits of the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The clouded, scratched glass exhibit cases and hushed, tomb-like nature of the galleries shaped my memory as much as the Native artifacts themselves.  I didn't know it at the time, but this prominent museum, in the 1970s, existed as a hybrid between colonial cabinets of curiosity and 19th c./20th c. natural history exhibits.  These type of museums reportedly confused children - and why wouldn't they - leaving them with notions that primitive peoples of dioramas were stuffed or dead, just like the moose or elephant in the adjoining exhibit?

More accessible to those of us in rural Maine, were the "cigar store Indians" that towered stoically over us on the porches of trading posts and general stores.  Since my father loved to hunt and fish at Moosehead Lake, I can't count the number of times that I edged around one of those frowning, garish sculptures. Closer to home, my favorite B-grade Westerns on late Saturday afternoon TV offered more animated versions of Indians, complete with the proper doses of romance and violance.  And where the Westerns left off shaping my perception of Indians, Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls picked up.  Weekly meetings and occasional summer outings as a Girl Scout associated Native Americans with outdoor survival skills. And, I shudder to admit that late-night lore of Campfire Girls taught me the cliche that our campground - with the unlikely name of Camp Pesquasawassis - was built on an Indian burial ground. There, huddled together with other girls in canvas tents, we listened breathlessly to nighttime tales of Indian ghosts that kept us from sleeping. In short, my childhood was steeped in Indian stereotypes, Indians of wood and plastic, dead Indians, but, ironically, devoid of visible, living, contemporary Wabanaki people.

None of these - not the cigar store indians, not the ones shot by cowboys on TV, and not the ones that childhood clubs and summer camps emulated or feared - had anything to do with the Wabanaki people who were fellow citizens in my home state, who played critical roles in the history of our region and continue to contribute in important ways to our modern life while preserving tiny fractions of their original homelands; about them, I had grown up in Maine knowing nothing.

-to be continued

[Patricia Erikson is a Peaks Island-based writer, educator, and anthropologists who blogs here and at Peaks Island Press.]

1 comment:

  1. I am from the Maliseet tribe of the Wabanaki Nation. Having a native father in the air force and a white mother, I lived both on (mostly on) and off the reservations. I remember going to one of these museums when I went to an elementary school. I remember seeing my people stuffed and mounted next to the dinosaurs. This was EXTREMELY traumatic for me. I was young enough (I think about 6 years old) that I thought the statues were real. Even when they showed me that they were only made of wax. I thought they had dug up my ancestors and filled them with wax. I remember my mother was furious. Then later when I found a job off the reserve (after not disclosing my race) I realized that people didn't know that we even still exist. Many people thought Natives were extinct. The worst part was, the reservation is within their town limits (Presque Isle Band of Mi'qmaks is where I lived at the time). I lost my job at K-mart in the Presque Isle Mall when my supervisor and another employee started saying that people who don't speak English should not be aloud to move to this country. At first I held my tongue because I didn't want to feed the negativity. When they started talking about the kids who are born here should be sent back as well, I lost my cool. I have many white friends. All of them have families from another country. I hate prejudice no matter who it comes from. I spoke up. I said, "If that was the case NONE of you would be speaking English! You would ALL be speaking MY language and if we went by your rules none of your families would be here still." My supervisor asked, "Why what is your language?" I said, "I am Native American. I prefer to be called a Turtle Islander. By your rules we don't live on "America" we live on "Turtle Island" which is the name we gave this land before your ancestors came. I have many white friends and family that I do not regret being part of my life. What you are saying makes me very sad for your life." I got into a lot of trouble for that conversation and eventually they decided that the work environment was too "hostile" after a conversation like that and it would be best if one of us left. My supervisor had been there longer so it was decided that I would be let go for "failure to get along professionally in the work place". People need to think about their ideas. Here is something that I know from living a hard life with a lot of death. Every person that you love you will lose, unless they lose you first. When you understand this teaching you learn to truly value the lives of those you love and the time that you have with them. You also learn to truly value your own life and what it means to others. Please, be good to each other. Wela'lin N'sept Nogamag. Thank you. All my relations.