That passion to understand the culture is what sets Pawling and his research apart, says Soctomah.
“I’ve met a lot of researchers,” he says. “I grew up seeing them on the reservation doing research, interpreting as they want and leaving, never to be seen again. Micah’s special because he brings in the community. I’ve never met a researcher that in tune with his work and the concerns of the Native people. In that way, he gets the full picture. He’s a specialist in Wabanaki research. What’s also important is getting back the information he finds — information pertinent to the (recognition) case in Canada, to cultural significance and to the education of our children.”
Today, the Passamaquoddy tribe continues to petition the Canadian government for recognition. Some of the 19th-century documents discovered through Pawling’s research could play a role in proving the existence of the aboriginal communities through time.
“Passamaquoddy petitions reveal that the people strove to preserve connections with the eastern portion of their homeland in Charlotte County, New Brunswick,” Pawling says. “With family bands hunting and fishing across the international border, the tribe maintained a sense of homeland that included obtaining a foothold in New Brunswick, even though the province had refused to recognize them as Canada’s First Nations peoples.”
The 1783 Treaty of Paris established the border at the St. Croix River, but uncertainty as to the true location of the river led to a boundary commission, which relied on Passamaquoddy testimony, resolving the dispute in 1798. The international border cut the Passamaquoddy homeland in two.
“I’ve had several meetings on Passamaquoddy land claims in Canada in which we’re asked to show evidence that our community was here. The petitions serve as our foundation for obtaining Canadian recognition,” Soctomah says.
“I’ve been fighting for 15 years, carrying on from the people before me. The stuff that Micah found gives us a strong voice. Every time there’s a change in government in Canada, we keep talking. I can never give up hope, like my ancestors never gave up hope.”
Soctomah also ensures that the wishes of his tribe are heard in Augusta. As a tribal representative in the Maine legislature for eight years, Soctomah wrote resolutions that reflected the wishes of the Passamaquoddy Council.
“That becomes my petition,” he says, “to go after changes. It’s a similar process within a system.”
Measuring the outcomes of petitions in the past isn’t as simple as counting up how many were granted, Pawling says. Petitions rejected by governments could be followed up by negotiations resulting in partial fulfillment of the request, and some petitions that governments granted were never enforced.
“Petitions also reveal why Native people are still concerned with land loss today,” Pawling says.
The hope, he says, is that his research shows the complexity of the past and contributes to an understanding of the ethnohistory of the Native communities and their ongoing issues.
“People and places may change,” he says, “but the challenges of land retention, rights and cultural misunderstandings don’t go away.”