Actions Define Destiny: Sharing Indigenous Knowledge in South Africa

George Soctomah Neptune, Passamaquoddy, recently spent six frenzied days in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of a Global Youth Indaba.
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George Soctomah Neptune, Passamaquoddy, recently spent six frenzied days in Cape Town, South Africa, a city of nearly 4 million people known for its scenic vistas, diverse vegetation and often contentious history.

But it was a tiny apple tree that made Neptune pause. A sapling, really. Still fragile, still malleable.

Neptune, 26, was in South Africa’s second-largest city as part of a Global Youth Indaba, an event named after the Zulu word for business or dialogue. One of 115 young leaders from all over the world, Neptune learned about history, talked about struggles for peace and participated in a memorable trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela famously spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.

George Neptune

During a tour of the Robben Island prison, George Neptune left these flowers at Nelson Mandela’s cell.

There, in a concrete-enclosed garden, Neptune discovered the apple tree. Planted in 2013, the sapling represents Mandela’s legacy as an anti-apartheid revolutionary and South Africa’s most celebrated hero. A plaque near the tree includes this quote: “Your circumstances do not define who you are; it is your actions that define your destiny.”

George Neptune

An apple tree planted in a garden at Robben Island reminds visitors that actions, not circumstances, define a person.

Neptune, who grew up on the small Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation in eastern Maine and later graduated from Dartmouth College, identified with the statement.

“It really reminded me of youth in my community, youth at home,” he said. “It’s always going to become an apple tree, despite the fact that it’s planted in such a hard place with such a hard history.”

The Global Youth Indaba this year replaced the 14th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, which was postponed when South Africa declined to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama. Neptune was one of 23 youths nominated for the indaba by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization founded more than 90 years ago to promote lasting peace and justice.

RELATED: Native Youth to Attend Cape Town Summit

Neptune is the first indigenous delegate to attend the youth summit, which started four years ago in conjunction with the world summit, said Jamie Bissonette Lewey, director of the healing justice program of the American Friends Service Committee.

Lewey, Abenaki, nominated Neptune because of his commitment to and understanding of Native peacemaking principles. As educator at the Abbe Museum, a Native American history museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, Neptune is dedicated to educating all visitors about culture and history—and the more elusive, intangible elements of being Native, Lewey said.

George Neptune

George Neptune stands at the Mandela Foundation sign, which is at the entrance to the Robben Island compound.

“George comes from a traditional family deeply immersed in healing work,” she said. “He’s a strong voice for his generation, a language speaker, a traditionalist. He has a depth of commitment and understanding of the peacemaking principles of his people.”

In Cape Town, Neptune met other youths fighting for peace in their communities, including many from very difficult circumstances, he said. A delegate from Palestine operated a triage unit in her building to care for people after a bombing. Another delegate, from Indonesia, advocates for gay rights in a country where same-sex relations are illegal.

“Lots of people are already doing a lot of peace work,” Neptune said. “It was inspiring to hear their stories, what they’re doing, their struggles for peace and what they think can help.”

As the only indigenous youth from the U.S., Neptune contributed an element unprecedented at the youth summit, said Bilal Taylor, program officer for integration and impact for the American Friends Service Committee. Taylor accompanied Neptune on the trip and was impressed with his willingness to share his indigenous knowledge.

George Neptune

George Neptune, Passamaquoddy, dresses in traditional regalia for the final dinner at the Global Youth Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa.

During a discussion about boycott and protest, for example, Neptune drew attention to parallels within Native communities.

“It was a teachable moment about the unexamined Native questions, the invisible struggle,” Taylor said. “He started people thinking about solidarity. Struggle is international, and by uniting in solidarity, you’re opening the world up and bringing it back home.”

Neptune also helped draft a global youth declaration, which calls for global unity, protection of diversity and the dismantling of common systems of oppression. It also calls for responsible education and global and local dialogue that is “respected, free and open.”

For his part, Neptune, who holds a bachelor’s degree in theater, plans to produce a theatrical performance to share with the Wabanaki Confederacy of Maine, which includes the Passamaquoddy.

“I want to help youth and adults in my communities,” he said. “I want to create monologues about the empowerment of our people, the survival of our people, our stories of triumph, hope and peace.”

Neptune also is looking forward to next year’s peace summit, which is scheduled for Atlanta, Georgia, and likely will have a much larger Native presence.