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Sacred fire lights the Wabanaki Confederacy

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis opened the annual Wabanaki Confederacy conference with a call for self-reliance, solidarity and a strategy among the tribes to deal with increasing threats to sovereignty from states and courts.

''We cannot rely on others, and our past failures and disappointments are evidence of that,'' Francis said, referring obliquely to the nation's decision to sever ties with the state following a devastating legislative session that saw every initiative to improve the lives of indigenous peoples defeated.

''This path will be stressful and of course the withdrawal of dollars and threats of physical enforcement are always there, but I am proud to say that our administration, our tribal council and our membership have implemented a plan to remove ourselves from any dependency on outside agencies and have made strides in doing that. We will talk more about this ... and some of the talk will focus on the most important issue of inherent sovereignty that cannot be taken or given away. It is simply sovereignty by fact that was given to us by our Creator.''

Dozens of Wabanaki chiefs and tribal members from the Wabanaki Confederacy tribes of Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Micmac and Abenaki from both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border; representatives from the Mohawk, Narragansett and other nations; plus representatives from Bolivia, France and Venezuela traveled to Indian Island for the annual Wabanaki Confederacy conference. Wabanaki means ''the people of the dawn'' and describes the Northeastern coastal indigenous peoples.

The conference aims to define and address issues of mutual interest to all the tribes. The annual event began June 21. Official meetings of the chiefs took place during the week, and the conference ended with a two-day pow wow June 28 and 29.

The confederacy formed in the mid-1700s, establishing an alliance of the Wabanaki nations. The idea was to provide the nations with greater political power in their negotiations with the Europeans and traditional Native adversaries like the Iroquois Confederacy. The idea was to develop a means of keeping the peace.

The tribes met at the Grand Council Fires and the records of those meetings were kept on wampum belts.

The confederacy meetings went dormant at some point, but they were revived in 1993 when the first reconstituted confederacy conference was hosted by the Penobscots and the sacred fire was lit again. Embers from the fire have been kept burning for the past 15 years.

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The fire is kept by whatever tribe hosts the annual meeting, then transported by runners to the next meeting the following year. This year's fire run began in Woodstock, New Brunswick, by a team of runners who commit themselves to transporting the embers a certain distance. Next year's location was expected to be decided during this year's conference. The embers will be transported to the conference site from Indian Island next year.

Fire keepers tended the sacred fire day and night during the conference, and each day began with a sunrise ceremony at the fire circle.

During the first day of the confederacy conference, representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, the National Congress of American Indians and the Counsel General of France made presentations.

''There is a cultural tradition of exchange between the Wabanaki and the French,'' the Hon. Francois Gauthier said.

Issues on the agenda for the following days of the conference included tribal-state relations in Maine; ecosystems and natural resources; economic development; traditional medicine and health; traditional adoptions; Canada, the U.S. and the United Nations; and the discussion, drafting and passing of resolutions.

There are other issues as well, Francis said, including the environment, the right to clean water, subsistence rights and land-into-trust issues. Some court cases are threatening the validity of land taken into trust after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, Francis noted.

''These are critical times for Indian people and these small actions that are taking place all across America threaten all of our futures. But we are strong people, which is why we are here today. It was our ancestors' strength that ensured our presence here today,'' he said.

He hoped the conference would get the tribes out of a local mindset and enable them to ''take a more global approach'' to strengthen sovereignty for indigenous peoples everywhere.

''When we act Indian and act sovereign, that's what we're all ensuring.''