Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: The Wabanaki

In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who is considered to be the father of modern taxonomy and ecology, decided that the principal feature of humans was wisdom, and so named our species. I wonder if he would have been so sanguine 250 years later. Wisdom may be a trait associated with individuals, but I’m hard-pressed to believe it ever applies to the species, at almost any time in history. Certainly in ecology we have no claim to the term: it’s as if we deny our taxonomic (and physical and spiritual) relationship to the rest of the world. In North America, that relationship did exist, for thousands of years, but it did not survive the near-extermination of the Native Americans, who may indeed have been among the world’s few wise peoples.
I define wisdom as the insightful ability to live harmoniously in the world. Humans lived for some 10,000 years in Maine before the Europeans came. We presume those humans suffered their wars of territory like any other human for much of that history, we presume they could be as cruel to their enemies – raping, torturing, killing – as any white man. Once the Europeans came, we know they did - Mohawks and Iroquois from the west fought the Maine Wabanaki for trapping and trading territory, the Wabanaki themselves fought the French and English and Dutch and Spanish and Americans - but from what we know of the rest of their lives, they seemed incredibly harmonious.
I’m sure those lives weren’t easy, especially in the harsh winters when starvation sometimes threatened, but in the more temperate seasons the land was blessed with riches suited to both the nomadic and the agricultural life. The last of the glaciers had scoured the land, creating a fresh start for mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, trees and wildlife, and the peoples travelling across the continent from Asia took full advantage of a beautiful world of pure water and rich river soils and abundant game. So many of the conservation values we espouse today are in fact native-people values; shouldn’t we listen?
     You only have to visit the Penobscot Nation Museum, on Indian Island near Old Town, to understand the sacredness of native life and the sacrilege of what happened to it. It is a tiny place, almost embarrassingly so, on reservation land minuscule in comparison with what once was. Yet the artifacts inside, the canoes and the formidable root clubs and the baskets made from brown ash bark now so scarce and the deerskin clothes; the evocative film about the people and their connection to the great wild river and its salmon; and the gracious curator James Neptune, patiently answering our ignorant questions; all this both inspired and humiliated my wife and me. One people so proud and wise and helpless, one people so proud and selfish and scruple-less. I'm still overwhelmed by the fact that James is a direct descendant of John Neptune, born in 1767, chief and shaman of the Penobscots, and Louis Neptune, erstwhile guide to Henry David Thoreau on his first trip to Maine. What terrible diminution of place and power that one family, not to mention a whole peaceful people, has seen. The descendants of Neptune have much to be proud of; the descendants of Linnaeus, in spite of all of our scientific advances, have little.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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