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Home - Choosing Survival – Spring 2011

Choosing Survival

An example of a 19th-century Native petition is this 1826 request for a 200-acre reserve on Grand Manan Island. Passamaquoddy Gov. Francis Joseph and Deacon Sockbason of Pleasant Point, Maine, petitioned New Brunswick Lt. Gov. Howard Douglas for land at Eel Brook, near Northern Head on the island. The land grant would not only prevent families from being accused of trespass in their homeland, but would be home to the Passamaquoddy as they hunted seals and fished for pollack in the spring. Image courtesy of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, RS108 Land Petitions: Original Series, Francis Joseph 1826

The Penobscots were the first tribe in eastern Maine to adopt the Euro-American practice of submitting written petitions to government officials. To use petitions, members of the Native community had to “become familiar with the unfamiliar and try to use it to their own advantage,” says Pawling. Ultimately, as petitions in the early 1800s became a steady communication link between the tribes and governments, the documents clearly demonstrate a sophistication, courage and determination by tribes to control their own destinies.

“They knew the political process of petitioning and what it required, including when to submit the petition and the precise way to address government leaders,” Pawling says. “They knew which officials to corner when they were leaving their offices. We get glimpses of all these layers behind the petitions. We also see some evidence to suggest that not all requests were conveyed accurately.”

As frustrating as it was to find petitions translated on behalf of the Native community that misrepresented their interests or that simply “got it wrong,” Pawling also found intriguing petition requests that revealed different Wabanaki positions taking place in their homeland. For instance, beginning in 1846, B.M. Flint built four dams on Huntley Brook — two in Indian Township — and a sawmill. The next year, a Passamaquoddy petition requested permission to build a mill so the tribe could produce building supplies for the increasing number of families moving to Indian Township. Such an operation would be a local alternative for the tribe, precluding having to send timber to Calais.

“This was a petition not involving hunting and fishing, but attempted to seize an economic opportunity for the benefit of their own community,” Pawling says. “These kinds of requests can challenge our notions about Native decisions in the past.”

The tribes tried to use the system and “hoped for the best,” Soctomah says. “There were some benefits that gave hope to the tribes that someone heard their concerns. They wanted to be able to survive without interference. It showed their dedication to live and be free.”

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