Wabanaki Perspectives shared culture and history
Gale Courey Toensing
Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians Chief Brenda Commander, Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians member Richard Silliboy, and former Maine Attorney General Steve Rowe comprised a panel that discussed “Tribal Identification: The Importance of Knowing One’s Roots” at the Wabanaki Perspectives Conference at the University of Maine in mid-October. The panel examined the human impact on individuals who are denied cultural and tribal identity.
AUGUSTA, Maine – It started with the idea of inviting a single group of young drummers for a cultural visit to the University of Maine, and blossomed into a four-day conference called Wabanaki Perspectives and Human Awareness that drew children, students, elders and the general public.
Wabanaki Perspectives and Human Awareness took place at the university Oct 13 – 16 and will likely become an annual event on the conference landscape, according to organizer Norma Bisulca.
The four-day gathering included panel discussions, displays and the sale of arts and crafts by Native artists, special exhibits, films, discussions, music and special tours to the capital for the 30-plus children from the state’s five Wabanaki communities.
Bisulca, an associate professor of mathematics, planted the seed for the event.
“UMA has the largest population of Native American students in our system and yet we’ve never done anything to recognize them.”
The university also has the first Native board of trustees’ member, Wayne Newell, a Passamaquoddy elder, educator, musician and culture keeper. In discussions with Bisulca and event co-chair Sarah Walton, assistant professor of Justice Studies, Newell suggested inviting his grandson and his drum group from Sipayik to the university.
“That sounded good, but if we were going to have kids come, we wanted to make sure to have kids from all the communities, and make sure they got to know each other, because they rarely have the opportunity to meet each other,” Bisulca said.
A group of elders from the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy communities was consulted to brainstorm what would be valuable to share with the public.
“We only included what those elders felt was important. They were the drivers of the whole event, so we ended up with a truly Wabanaki perspective event,” Bisulca said.
Most of the elders who participated in the planning took part in the panel discussions.
Ruben (Butch) Phillips, Penobscot, participated in a panel called “Spirituality: Connecting with GheChe’Nawais and All that Is” that discussed the essence of Wabanaki spirituality, and how it influences intra- and inter-tribal communications.
The topic created some controversy in the planning states, Bisulca said.
“Some people thought it was just awful that we would have a panel on spirituality. They were afraid about people stealing the religion to make money. We explained that we would not talk about ceremonies, but about the meaning of Wabanaki spirituality to raise awareness about how a Wabanaki person views his world and the importance of the ancestors.”
Bisulca is not Native, but is married to Paul Bisulca, the Penobscot chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, and has two Penobscot children and three Penobscot grandchildren.
To learn more about the Wabanaki tribes visit:
“It’s important to me that my kids and grandchildren understand their Wabanaki roots,” Norma Bisulca said.
The film “Wabanaki: A New Dawn,” which was shown as part of the spirituatity panel, can be viewed online.
Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander, Richard Silliboy, Micmac, and former state Attorney General Steve Rowe took part in a panel called “Tribal Identification: The Importance of Knowing One’s Roots.” The discussion explored the impact on individuals of being denied their cultural and tribal identity and the efforts underway by the Wabanaki tribes to re-acculturate returning members.
The film “Invisible” was screened; it shows how Wabanaki people are largely “invisible” to Maine’s dominant white population, which is mostly ignorant of Wabanaki history and current circumstances, and sometimes blatantly racist in attitude and actions. The film uses individual voices to tell its story and explore ways to change the toxic racism that hinders the relationship between the peoples.
“I was one of the people in that film,” Commander said. “I watched it one time, because it really tore at my heart, and I watched it again at the conference and I felt the same way. It’s very emotional to me to know that today we still have to be vigilant and always aware of what’s happening, because we can’t go back to that place where we were.”
Other panels explored the historic roles Native Americans have played in the military, issues of sovereignty, and the revival of cultural arts and pride.
John Dennis, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs’ cultural director, oversaw the cultural activities for the children, who attended and camped out inside a university building. He brought his big drum, some drumsticks, CDs, and his medicine.
“I was more than prepared. The kids weren’t bored.” Dennis taught them songs, drumming and dance.
“They took to it real good. I explained to them that if you want drumming, go back and tell your parents and they can take it to the chief and council and they can mandate that because these kids have a need not only to learn their culture, but also to embrace who they are.”
He believes Indian culture is a drug and alcohol preventive. “Through drumming, they can’t participate in drugs and alcohol.”
The immediate goal was to bring the children together at a university to celebrate their heritage and be respected for it, Bisulca said.
“But our long term goal is that when these kids go to university, they’ll have a larger peer group and they’ll be more likely to stay in school.”