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Holy Road

John Sapiel, Indian activist and spiritual leader, dies

PENOBSCOT, Maine - John Sapiel, Penobscot, who stood on top of a hill on Deer Island in 2005, remembering the ancestors who perished there of starvation and exposure more than 300 years ago, died May 12 in his Falmouth, Mass., home.

''I prayed in my Penobscot language for all of them,'' Sapiel said May 24, 2005, following a commemoration ceremony he had organized to honor the Deer Island Indian concentration camp victims of English colonialism during the winter of 1675 - '76 during King Phillip's War.

Sapiel, 75, was a lifelong activist both in his own Penobscot community on Indian Island in Maine, where he was born, and for the rights of indigenous peoples. He was the spiritual leader at the North American Indian Center of Boston since its beginnings more than three decades ago.

''He led all our opening and closing prayers,'' said Joanne Dunn, the center's executive director. ''He's been our spiritual leader and adviser since the 1970s. His death is a great loss to all of Indian country and especially to us. He was always here. He was dearly loved.''

Sapiel had the unique ability to be both a spiritual and political leader, Dunn said.

''I've never seen anybody be able to walk that fine line of balance between being politically active and standing up for your people, and at the same time having that spirituality and goodness that sets you aside from everyone else,'' Dunn said.

Sadly, Dunn said, Sapiel died on the night the center held its first gala fund-raiser for a new building. Sapiel, who was known as Sam, was scheduled to say the opening prayers. Instead, his death was announced at the gathering, Dunn said.

Sapiel died of kidney cancer that had metastasized.

''He died at his home in his bed surrounded by people who loved him, so what better way to be welcomed by the Creator than knowing you're passing through one door to the other side?'' Dunn said.

A special memorial ceremony for Sapiel was scheduled to be held at the center May 29.

In addition to organizing the memorial ceremony in May 2005, which marked the anniversary of the 1677 repeal of the law that established the Massachusetts concentration camp for Indians, Sapiel also worked successfully in 2005 to repeat a 1675 law that banned American Indians from entering Boston. Both laws were enacted by the Massachusetts Council during King Philip's War against the English settlers, a devastating conflict that pitted tribes against each other, killed thousands of American Indians and cleared the way for white settlement.

These stories from the past need to be told, Sapiel said at the time, particularly the little-known history of the Northeastern tribes who were the first to be impacted by European colonialism.

Sapiel was also among the earliest organizers of his own Penobscot people, former tribal Chief Jim Sappier said.

In the early 1970s, Sapiel and a handful of others - known as ''the movers and shakers,'' Sappier said - got the first federal programs and funding for the tribe.

''We didn't have any housing. We still had outhouses and the old houses we had before. They were cold. Sam and this group of people got together and formed a corporation called Penobscot Indian Enterprises and they got the first federal programs going for the tribe,'' Sappier continued.

Sapiel's activism enabled the tribe to move on from the initial infrastructure to water and sewage systems, housing, community-building and other projects, Sappier said.

''He was outgoing. He was jovial, and he was very serious when he did business. He was a good friend. He was one of the people who really started the changes that took place in Penobscot, the housing and drinking water, because we used to have to carry water in buckets in the later '60s and early '70s,'' Sappier commented.

Sapiel was also an athlete and ran sports programs for the children.

In addition to his wife, Shirley, Sapiel leaves two sisters, Patricia Lizotte of Wallingford, Conn., and Viola Cotta of Indian Island; two stepdaughters, Roxanne Brown of Ada, Okla., and Shelly Pocknett of Mashpee; two stepsons, Earl Mills Jr. and Robert Mills, both of Mashpee; nine grandsons; and six granddaughters.

Sapiel had been working with tribes in southern New England and New York before his death, Sappier said.

He returned to Indian Island where a burial service was held May 18.