Skip to main content

Passaconaway’s descendants struggle to protect sacred site

YORK, Maine – When oral tradition and spiritual practice come up against the dominant society’s ideas about property rights and land use, who gets to decide what is historical fact, what is legend and what is sacred?

In York, a pristine southern Maine town of ocean-view mansions and a bustling summer tourist trade, that dilemma is playing out between the Mount Agamenticus Conservation Region – a nonprofit conservation coalition of state, town, landowners and environmental organizations – and a small group of local American Indians who are trying to protect their sacred site on Mount Agamenticus.

The group is led by Brian Spirit Bear Michaud, Pennacook/Micmac, who complained last summer to Robin Stanley, coordinator of the conservation region, and to the town manager about the removal of stones from a mound at the mountain’s summit that memorializes 17th century Pennacook Chief Sachem Passaconaway.

Descendants of the Pennacook, an Eastern Abenaki Nation tribe in southern coastal Maine and northern New Hampshire, have gathered for hundreds of years at this stone mound for prayer and ceremonies. Michaud told Indian Country Today. They traditionally add a “prayer stone” to the pile.

The mound pays homage to St. Aspinquid, Passaconaway’s Christian name. The Pennacooks believe that Passaconaway (“Son of the Bear”) banished an evil spirit from the mountain and was buried there.

Last summer, the conservation region and town removed stones from the mound and used them to border a garden of shrubs and other plantings.

Now Stanley says St. Aspinquid “never existed” and the rock pile should be moved.

“The more research I conduct, the more I am convinced that St. Aspinquid is not the same as Passaconaway and that St. Aspinquid never existed,” Stanley wrote in a report to the town.

The sacred site needs to be “cleaned up” because of the stone “overflow” that violates the conservation region’s “Leave No Trace” policy, Stanley said in the report. She recommends relocating the stone’s away from the summit and erecting a sign that “will not suggest that St. Aspinquid is buried at the mountain, nor will the pile be a designated memorial to him. Rather, a new sign will attempt to inform visitors of the St. Aspinquid legend and how the folklore itself has become a part of Mt. A’s history.”

Before moving forward, Stanley wants everything formally authorized.

“I would like it [the legend of St. Aspinquid, the gravesite, the memorial, and/or the sacred status of the mountain itself] legitimized/validated. I believe this should be the responsibility of Brian [Michaud] and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (?). I would like the historical certificate/stamp of approval. Any research, including archaeological digs, should be at their expense.”

Two years ago, Michaud complained to Stanley about the original sign being removed.

Michael Sullivan, the town’s director of Parks and Recreation, said that Stanley’s recommendations will be presented to the town for approval. The town bought Mount Agamenticus in the early 1980s.

He said the town “has never really authorized any kind of memorial,” and he believes that the stone pile only began in the early 1980s when a sign was erected describing the “legend” of St. Aspinquid.

“That’s when people started to bring stones and the pile grew tremendously quickly.”

Sullivan acknowledged the difference of opinion between Michaud and Stanley, but he said the steering committee is “wide open” to maintain a stone pile somewhere on the mountain. The important thing is that it is “managed.”

Stanley’s management plan is in her report: the larger rocks will be used to form a border around the prayer stones and any “overflow” stones will be removed; American Indians “are encouraged to offer input” on the new site and on which rocks are moved, and they can help move them, but the steering committee has the “final determination”; if the rocks that were removed from the mound last summer and used as garden borders are removed from the garden borders and if no “official recognition” of the site is issued by April 1, 2009, the conservation region will not be required “to maintain any rocks, etc., at any site.”

“I think they’re saying that they respect the legend. Given the fact that the Mt. A steering committee will let the pile happen somewhere on the mountain, I think that means the steering committee is admitting that you can’t prove it; so to put the whole burden of proof on the Native Americans – I don’t know if that’s proper,” Sullivan said.

The proper thing is to respect other people’s right to practice their religion, Michaud said.

“I have suffered great disrespect and discrimination against me by the aforementioned people. They have done this deliberately because I defend my right to practice my faith/spirituality or religion, as they may deem it, in a place that I have been brought up at all of my 52 years. I was even wed atop the summit in 1999.”

The historical record, even among non-Natives, goes back hundreds of years.

“It is well established that the town of York stands on the ancient lands of the Pennacook People, specifically, the Accominta Clan of the Pennacooks, which is where the name ‘Agamenticus’ comes from,” he said.

“People bring stones to the grave in honor of a great Native American and they do so with the idea of respect. The town of York needs to respect everyone’s religious/cultural and spiritual background and stop disturbing the prayer stones left to honor the ancestors. This site should not be moved; it should be protected and marked properly. Local natives do not go to cemeteries and steal grave stones to make flower gardens.

“Plain and simply put, why is York allowing a couple of employees to make decisions for the whole community?”