One of the most significant contributions of Native petitions is their ability to speak through the ages about important tribal homeland sites — locations valued as gathering places for family bands, as sources of natural resources for subsistence and as places of spiritual significance. The tribes fought hard to hold onto these areas, such as the islands in the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers.
The notion that reservation lands were undesirable places that Native people were pushed to is not necessarily so in Maine, Pawling says. “It’s a different way of looking at the land and water that many Euro-Americans didn’t understand,” he says.
In their petitions, tribal members talk about these places and why they’re important, says Soctomah. The petitions also are a vital source of the aboriginal language, including place-names characterizing sites and geographic features.
In 2002, Soctomah and UMaine anthropologist David Sanger led a research initiative, “Landscapes and Language: A Passamaquoddy Place-Name Project,” that resulted in the addition of new place-names to the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary, compiled by Passamaquoddy elder David Francis Sr., and linguist Robert Leavitt, published by University of Maine Press in 2008. Some of the rediscovered place-names are sacred and culturally significant to the tribe and not public.
The springboard for the project was Soctomah’s personal knowledge and his historical research, Sanger’s extensive archaeological work on both sides of the international border in the Passamaquoddy homeland, and the comprehensive document research conducted by Pawling, including the Native petitions and surveyors’ journals.