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Rebuilding the Wabanaki Confederacy

Non-Indigenous participate in Confederacy Gathering for first time in centuries.

by Miles Howe

gkisedtanamoogk of the Wampanoag - The Wabanaki Confederacy Council's fire keeper. [Photo: Miles Howe]
gkisedtanamoogk of the Wampanoag - The Wabanaki Confederacy Council's fire keeper. [Photo: Miles Howe]

St. Mary's First Nation, Unceded Wabanaki Territory (New Brunswick) – On Sept. 1 and 2, for the first time in several hundred years, non-Indigenous peoples were invited to participate in the last two days of the week-long Wabanaki Confederacy Gathering.

The Wabanaki (translated roughly as "People of the First Light") Confederacy's current incarnation comprises five principal nations; the Mik’maq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki and Penobscot, and stretches from the colonial borders of Newfoundland in the North, mid-Maine in the South, and parts of Quebec in the West.

At its zenith, the Confederacy consisted of close to 50 nations, went South to the mid-Carolinas, included most of the interior of the United States, and reached into Ontario.

Approximately 150 people attended the final two days of the almost week-long meeting, held on the shores of the Wulustuk (St. John) river.

The open portion of the gathering, from the perspective of a non-Indigenous participant, can perhaps be described as a meeting between Indigenous and non-Indigenous environmental activists, placed into a paradigm in which environmental activism is no longer a lifestyle choice, or 'something one does'.

Invitation to participate in ceremony, and patient explanation on the part of the Indigenous hosts, brought about the notion of inter-connection between self and the natural world – so that the notion of 'activism' was simply replaced by the reality of 'being'.

“When we talk about Wabanaki people, we're also talking about Wabanaki people being the land, being the trees, being the animals, because in that cultural perspective, we're all related,” says gkisedtanamoogk, the Gathering's fire keeper. “We're everything. We're not just a species standing apart from everything else.”

The notion of special inter-dependence was also co-joined with the necessity of placing oneself into an historical narrative that is not static, but developing.

Portions of sacred bundles, which included ancient Wampum belts – themselves a recorded, as well as symbolic, history in bead work – and the box gifted from the French to the original Wabanaki Confederacy in 1701 upon their acceptance to participate in the Confederacy — were brought out and explained, and allowed those in attendance to see themselves as part of something continuous, historic and challenging.

“Within the Wabanaki territory we're looking for allies that are going to stand against the total annihilation of our land and water and air,” says jeaba-weay-quay (roughly translated from Obijway to 'The woman whose voice pierces'). “We're looking for allies who will help us to put our nation back together, and put it back in order. And we're asking our allies to help us empower that. And in the process of doing that, they will be decolonizing us and they will be decolonizing themselves.”

The notion of a fluid historical narrative also extends to the treaties that exist between the Wabanaki and those who have subsequently colonized their territories. The treaties that do exist are of peace and friendship, not of subservience of self and ceding of land.

The Wabanaki thus provide not only a paradigm alternative on the metaphysical sphere, but also a legal umbrella under which the real concerns to the natural environment, and thus all of us, can find sanctuary and process.

Many in attendance over the two-day period spoke of the environmental perils that are now at the doorsteps of their respective Maritime-area backyards.

To observe effort and concern on any number of particular environmental issues come together and begin to form a cohesive whole, under the watch and fostering of the Wabanaki, was as if watching pieces of a puzzle come together in an already-existent frame.

To be invited into this process, as partners with equal concern, has the potential to be extremely empowering on many fronts.

“The Wabanaki are in a far better position to defend the land,” says gkisedtanamoogk. “No land was ever ceded, and that's acknowledged by both the province and the federal government. So on the basis of the treaties, what we're suggesting is that you and I have a common responsibility to the land under those treaties.

"You and I, we also have a common responsibility to each other, as holder and keepers of those treaties. Those treaties are as important to Wabanaki people as they ought to be important to you. Those are your treaties too. And under those treaties we are also invoking on international protocol, so we have a social potential of being responsible to each other's needs, but in an entirely different context. And that presents immense implications, both legal implications as well as social implications and economic implications that are more just.”

Harry LaPorte, grand chief of the Maliseet First Nation, agrees.

“We're going to rebuild the Wabanaki Confederacy,” says LaPorte. “We also invited some non-Natives...to come and be with us and to help us build an alliance, so that when we...come into conflict with the government and some of their decisions and policies...to have them stand beside us and to let their government know that it's not only Native people who are worried about the water, the land, the air. But it's also people from their nation that are concerned.”

While some at the Gathering were eager for quick pacts and commitments, due in no small part to the urgency of the environmental issues – such as 'fracking' – that are affecting the area, this was to be sure among the first steps.

Gaps in culture, in no way limited to the most obvious identifiers of language and religion, are real, and will require concerted effort and patience to overcome. Judging by those in attendance however, the willingness to make this alliance work is both urgent and real, not only in terms of ideas shared, but also willingness to participate in ceremonies not necessarily completely understood, but partaken of in a spirit of peace and friendship. 

As for the next steps of this alliance, that will be up to the grandmothers.

“The grandmothers are going to be meeting in the meantime to make sure that we keep cohesion of this alliance together and to provide that communication, and to put that wise, white hair together to sit down and talk about what needs to be done,” says jeaba-weay-quay. “ That's who's going to point the way...the women. The grandmothers. And then we're going to turn around and tell the men 'This is what we need to do. This is what we want. So we need you to help us.'”

“This is a preliminary investigation of what that relationship looks like,” says gkisedtanamoogk. “What are the expectations? What are the long-term implications? What are some of the things we can do in the immediate? I'm really excited about this. I sense that something of this magnitude is a paradigm shift of global proportions.”

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