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Home - Choosing Survival – Spring 2011

Choosing Survival

Photo by Edwin Remsberg, USDA

The whirlwind of change in the Wabanaki homeland of the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet tribes began after the Revolutionary War. In 1783, British loyalists and American immigrants began staking claims to eastern lands in the region of Massachusetts known as the District of Maine, petitioning the Commonwealth for property and water rights.

Through a series of treaties with Massachusetts, the tribes had retained reservations and usufruct rights that recognized traditional use of the land and water. Native leaders had relied on traditional face-to-face communications at treaty negotiations and conferences between Native delegates and Euro-American officials.

But by the 19th century, when formal meetings became less common, the Penobscots, Passamaquoddies and Maliseets in present-day eastern Maine, western New Brunswick and the southern shore of Quebec had to navigate a new and ever-changing geopolitical landscape. With their very survival on the line, the tribes learned to use petitions as a political tool that not only kept the door of diplomatic negotiations open, but also served as a way to assert concerns and articulate aboriginal rights to governments.

The result was a remarkable paper trail that provides a unique perspective on the Maine tribes’ struggle to withstand an invasion that resulted in a reconfiguration of aboriginal homeland — the process of Euro-Americans applying their own rearrangement of space to tribal lands and waters, including bridges, roads, property boundaries, and fences or stone walls.

Today, the ethnohistory revealed in a University of Maine research project on 19th-century Wabanaki petitions has contemporary cultural and political significance. It provides context for the formation of reservation lands, suggesting that these places held significant cultural importance among the communities.

Native petitions speak not only to the challenges to their lands and lifestyle, but to the tribes’ ability in wielding petitions as a political medium. The petitions are filled with their voices and values, including the place-names of the important sites and valuable hunting and fishing grounds they fought to preserve.

The research also provides important documentation for the Passamaquoddy tribe’s long, ongoing efforts to gain federal recognition in Canada — an acknowledgment that the international border between eastern Maine and western New Brunswick cut through the heart of Passamaquoddy homeland.

“In the 17th and 18th centuries, Colonial wars were fought with swords and muskets. By the 19th century, the weapons were ink and paper, involving settlers petitioning for Indian lands and rights, and Indians responding to assert their rights,” says ethnohistorian Micah Pawling, whose research recently culminated in a Ph.D. in history at UMaine.

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