by the Rev. Ted Kanellakis
Committee on Indian Relations
On Monday, April 4, 2016, the Diocesan Committee on Indian Relations hosted an event at the Penobscot Nation’s, Indian Island School. Forty-one people attended the three hour program. It was an introduction and exposure to the school facility with presentations on culture, art, history, language and education that are experienced by the Native children at the school.
Invited participants included local educators and students from the University of Maine at Orono; the Head of the Riley School in Rockport, and teachers from the St. George Public School in Tenants Harbor. Members of St. James’, Old Town; St. John’s, Bangor; St. Peter’s, Rockland; St. John Baptist, Thomaston; and St. Paul’s, Brunswick; were represented as well as other members of Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in Rockland. Members of the Wabanaki REACH (Reconciliation, Engagement, Advocacy, Change, Healing) ally group also attended.
At the Indian Island School we were cordially welcomed and given a tour of the school’s library by the Interim Principal Tracey Nute. The library is the heart of the school where its large, open, and light-filled space embraces not only a wealth of books but signs and symbols from ceiling to floor of Native art and culture: from banners that moved with the air currents, designed and painted by the school children, to a full-sized Penobscot Birch Bark Canoe, made by Penobscot Tribal artisans.
After taking in the beauty and symbolic connections to learning the library provided, we were guided by Principal Nute to a large classroom. She introduced our first presenter, Lee Francis, the Native studies teacher. Lee Francis is a very pleasant and jovial person who must be much loved by the children she teaches. She began by telling us about her own life. She had fond memories of life on Indian Island as a young child. She and her family moved away and as a young woman she moved to the West where she met a man from another tribe. After their marriage, she and her husband moved back to Indian Island because, now having experienced living away, she realized her true affection for what ‘coming home’ offered.
Her descriptions of the freedom and learning from nature and reuniting with her tribal community family were deeply moving. The room was silent, our eyes and attention fixed on Lee Francis as she spoke of her life and her commitment to teaching the ways of the Wabanaki people so that children of this new generation will have the appreciation of their heritage to support them in their lives ahead.
The second presenter, James Eric Francis, serves as the Penobscot Nation’s Tribal Historian and Director of the Nation’s Culture and Historic Preservation Department. He spoke with heartfelt passion and humor about his life on Indian Island as a boy and as a young man where he, supported by his tribal family, developed a love of the land and the Penobscot River which has surrounded and embraced the Penobscot people feeding the them in body and spirit for thousands of generations.
He told of his leaving to serve in the US Air Force and spoke of his longing to return to his Native ancestral land and people. Part of his talk touched on the life and experiences of Henry David Thoreau, the writer, philosopher, and naturalist. Mr. Thoreau’s experiences in his explorations of the Maine wilderness and traveling ancient canoe routes in the mid-nineteenth century were life-changing to his thinking. Much of that change was greatly influenced by the teachings and wisdom he received from his Penobscot guides, Joe Polis and Joseph Attean.
A slide presentation showed depictions of the sacred mountain Katahdin and the Tribal peoples’ understanding of how it oversees and nourishes the land, supplying the Penobscot River with all that is needed to support their People and the natural surroundings. The spiritual relationship of the Penobscot Nation with Katahdin, the sacred mountain and the river, are inextricably connected. This belief, so wonderfully described, helped those of us listening to deeply appreciate their understanding that we are all connected to the earth and each other.
Some in the Diocese of Maine know James Francis as the co-creator of the film, with Gunnar Hansen and David Westphal of Acadia Films Video, titled Invisible.* The 2001 documentary, funded in part by at grant from the United Thank Offering, explores some of the tragic history of the Wabanaki, caused by white racist actions intent on destroying their tribal existence. Particularly, this was done by consciously removing children from their families and ancestral communities and obstructing their ability to learn their culture, language and history. Those actions continue to impact negatively on Native Indians and all of us.
Comments received subsequently are overwhelmingly marked by continued interest in future offerings. Educators present expressed interest in connecting with the Penobscot School for the purpose of exploring joint educational experiences with their students. CIR will help facilitate those connections.
Our hope and motivation for this event and those planned for the future, is for the good that will come from helping to bring non-Indian people of Maine, especially those who live close to sovereign Native Tribes, to gain greater awareness of the possibilities for a wealth of blessings that friendly neighborliness with the Wabanaki can afford to all. Grateful thanks to Tracey Nute, Lee Francis, James Francis, Penobscot Elder Butch Philips, and Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis for their hospitality.
* A DVD of Invisible is available from the Committee on Indian Relations. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org to order a copy.