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Home - Choosing Survival – Spring 2011

Choosing Survival

Map detail of Old Town Island from the Journal and Plans of Survey by Joseph Treat — 1820. Treat, a surveyor from Bangor, Maine, and guide John Neptune, the Penobscot lieutenant governor, spent a month documenting the North Woods — the Wabanaki homeland — that was being reconfigured by Euro-American settlers. The journal entries and maps re-create a dialogue between Euro-Americans and Native peoples, showing how different perceptions of the land were negotiated and disseminated, exposing the tensions that surfaced when assumptions and expectations clashed. In large part because of Neptune’s influence, the maps reflect a river-oriented Native perspective that would later serve as a key to Euro-American access to the region’s interior. In addition to numerous Native place-names on the maps, Treat’s manuscript shows the dispersal of Penobscot families on their reservation islands and the location of important portages around rips in the river. Image courtesy of Maine State Archives

As a youth, Pawling was captivated by the Abenaki history of his home state of Vermont. He was an undergraduate at the University of Delaware when he received a summer grant to conduct research at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, Maine, for his thesis on the Wabanaki Confederacy, an intertribal alliance of the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq.

That interest in the Wabanaki history brought Pawling to UMaine. His master’s research examined the role of petitions in the cultural survival of the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy in the 19th century. Pawling’s dissertation research, completed last spring, is a cross-border analysis of Wabanaki petitions and reconfiguration of their homeland in the 19th century.

“Similar to the work of my undergraduate professor Brian Hosmer, my work is less about resistance and accommodation and more about Native people making choices that affected their daily lives,” says Pawling, who is the special research assistant at UMaine’s Canadian-American Center, working on the upcoming publication of the Historical Atlas of Maine.

In his research that took him to archives from Ottawa, Canada, to Augusta, Maine, Pawling pored through hundreds of Native petitions and others by Euro-Americans that pertained to aboriginal issues. Many Wabanaki petitions were written by non-Native intermediaries, including priests, but some Native peoples wrote their own. Styles, formats and lengths of petitions varied. Many of the tribe’s petitions for land focused on protecting cultural sites and important hunting and fishing locations. Other petitions addressed such issues as right of occupancy, food and assistance.

The 19th-century petitions also show evidence of Native and Euro-Americans trying to understand each other.

“In my research, I’ve seen a few petitions, but Micah’s volume really surprised me. He found petitions dating back hundreds of years, a time I didn’t realize the tribe was using that system,” says Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal historic preservation officer and a 1984 UMaine alumnus with a degree in forest management.

“A lot of Micah’s petitions show that struggle was not just about land, but also about survival. The tribe wanted the bloodline to continue, their rights to always be here. It’s not special rights, it’s aboriginal rights that our ancestors always had.”

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