Wabanaki Tools of Diplomacy: Storying Protocols as Political Will
Oral history supports that Wabanaki people have inhabited what is now New England and the Canadian Maritimes since time immemorial. Throughout this existence, and still to this day, we survived by following the teachings of Gluskabe, adapting to the natural environment by creating many tools relevant to our ontologies and epistemologies--our ways of knowing and being. These tools are not just handheld or physical objects but take the form of both the oral and written word, as well as images or pictures. Furthermore, as an oral culture, we never had an alphabet or a term for written forms of our language before colonization. What we did have is what I term as tools of image making, or “visual accompaniments to speech” (Walker, 1990). Two such image making tools that the Wabanaki people have used throughout time (in the Passamaquoddy language) are wapap, wampum, and wikhikonal, birch bark carvings. Today, in Maine’s political climate, these tools have theoretically converged together and taken the form of the latter--wikhikon, or anything written. This essay first discusses the current status of a policy wikhikon, The Wabanaki Studies Law (LD 291) and the need to take action to improve its implementation. It then offers a framework to take such action by exploring the concepts and protocols behind Wabanaki Diplomacy and its tools, along with their transformations throughout colonization and the power that they have today to positively change the political and educational environment. Furthermore, it highlights the intellectual tradition of the Wabanaki to use the tools of colonization for sovereignty and self-determination.
The Wabanaki Studies Law (WSL) requires all Maine K-12 schools to educate youth about the Wabanaki people of Maine; our history, political systems, cultural systems, territories, and economic systems. It was sponsored by former Penobscot Tribal Representative Donna Loring, passing in 2001, and went into full effect in 2004. In order to ensure implementation of the law, The Wabanaki Studies Commission (WSC), which was a tribal and state entity, was created and provided support for schools to develop educational resources. The commission submitted a report in 2003 that analyzed the law and outlined steps for implementation for stakeholders. However, in 2005, the commission fell through due to a lack of funding, allowing numerous barriers of implementation to exist. In response to these issues, Rebecca Sockbeson, Penobscot Scholar and Professor of Education Policy, published her article “Maine Indigenous Education Left Behind” in the Journal of American Indian Education (2019). In this article, Sockbeson provides background and context of the law, an overview of Wabanaki History, her experience as a Penobscot mother and researcher, additional barriers beyond funding, and clear pathways for implementation of the law. Sockbeson further submitted a Libra professorship report for the University of Maine that told of her experiences working with the university and specific action steps for the institution to take for better implementation. This leads us to today, 20 years later after the bill passed with the WSC still un-reinstated, none of the recommendations being fully met, and barriers of implementation still in place.
In order to take action, I suggest for all stakeholders, including the Maine DOE, Universities, and the tribes, to center Wabanaki Diplomacy and use the concepts and protocols of its tools, of wampum and wikhikon. In fact, I believe that this policy, being supported by Wabanaki citizens, was created to follow the procedures of Wabanaki Diplomacy, but is in a political and educational system with differing values. However, that is not suggesting that Wabanaki Diplomacy cannot be centered in Maine’s political and educational system. There are multiple examples of the successful centering of Wabanaki Diplomacy in Maine’s political climate, as seen in the policy stories of LD 2418 (law prohibiting the use of offensive names) and LD 944 (An Act to Ban Native American Mascots in All Public Schools). Along with the lack of implementation of the WSL, other current issues, such as the appropriation and degradation of Wabanaki land and resources, can also be successful in centering Wabanaki Diplomacy and work towards sustainable solutions. To provide a framework for this process, we will explore the concepts and protocols within Wabanaki Diplomacy and the tools that we used to keep it ongoing. We will begin with the story of wampum and the pedagogical, philosophical, and diplomatic teachings it gives us today while contextualizing it in regard to the WSL. We will then discuss what happened to wampum and how its energy still lives in Wabanaki social and political thinking today.
Wampum consists of blue and white beads made from quahog shells that are strung together on individual strands or weaved into belts of intricate patterns and designs. It is suggested that “the coastal Indians were the first to make and use wampum” (Haas, 2007), which includes the Wabanaki Nations. For the Wabanaki, at a glance, wampum is the “foundation for maintaining our civil and political customs” (Francis, 2016) and “are symbolic of the stories from the past” (Soctomah, 2019). The story of wampum begins with our creation stories; the stories that make us who we are, reflect our values, and give us an understanding of the world. These stories are also a form of resistance, or a “strategy for protecting and preserving identity” (Soctomah, 2007) and our homelands. Craig Womack suggests that “politics, land, and story are deeply intertwined entities”, thus our stories, what interconnects us to the land, are also “connected with law (Soctomah, 2007). This would suggest that Native identity is a form of resistance, as our stories will always be our ways of survivance. They gift us the “possibility of order and significance” and the power to push “back against the tyrannies” by “responding with intelligence and invention when we are confronted with situations” (Soctomah, 2007). This is where wampum found its place as a tool to transform the energy from our stories into a physical object in order to maintain peace and diplomacy in face of the tyrannies that occurred in the spaces we share.
This was the case in the event of the Great Council Fire, which is where the wampum laws and Wabanaki Confederacy originated (Mitchell, 1990). The Great Council Fire was a part of the Great Law of Peace which was made in response to “cycles of revenge and killing” in the Northeast (Soctomah, 2007). The Passamaquoddy records of this event were kept in wampum belts, with Sopiel Selmo as the potoouswin, the wampum keeper. Upon the death of Selmo and the appropriation of our wampum, these records were lost. However, Passamaquoddy historian and linguist David Francis, working with Robert Leavitt from the University of New Brunswick, has kept the energy of this story alive by translating and transcribing an oral recounting from Lewis Mitchell. This work is published under the title of Wapapi Akonutomakonol: The Wampum Records. This story of The Wampum Records teaches us valuable lessons that can be used in the geopolitical and educational spaces in what is called the state of Maine and can help inform public policy, holistically bringing positive social changes in the physical universe.
The first lesson that the records teach us is within the Wabanaki’s protocol and ceremony of wampum. Gathering in council is a “crucial element of the Wabanaki confederacy” which was also reflected at the Great Council Fire. Here at the fire, the leaders of the Nations all came together under a single roof, symbolizing familial relations, and first sat in seven days of silence, assuring to take the time to think before they spoke and acknowledge the past warfare and blood that was spilled between them. This was called “Cikte Wikuwam” or the “Wigwam is Silent.” They then came together, and “opened up the wigwam” now calling it “Msi Tahk Wen Tolwestu” or “Every One of Them Talks” (Francis, 1990). When they came together, they did so around Kci Sqot, The Great Fire, where they were all the same height and had an equal voice. This teaches us today to gather as equals across communities and give everyone an equal voice in decision making, which takes time and relationship building and thinking before speaking. In regard to the WSL, this protocol of gathering is exactly what's missing with the WSC being non-reinstated, allowing barriers of implementation to exist as the WSC serves as the “heart of the law” (Sockbeson, 2019). Thus, we can see that wampum starts to give us a framework for the implementation of the law by taking the action of gathering.
Another teaching in regard to the WSL comes from the use and symbols of the blue and white beads that are weaved together to produce an element of meaning of wampum belts. With the blue color symbolizing war and “reminds us of the survival of some but the genocide of thousands” and the white beads symbolizing peace and “lay(s) the path for the continuance of our culture” (Haas, 2007), we are reminded to acknowledge and find balance between the ugly knowledge, such as genocide, and beautiful knowledge, such as basket weaving, in order to produce meaning and shape the physical universe. In other words, if the WSL was strung into wampum, it would be made of both colors. This reminds us to teach both of these elements in Maine’s schools in order to mobilize truth and heal our relationships. This was emphasized by elders on the WSC, but argued by non-native committee members, which is evidence of settler moves to innocence (Tuck and Yang, 2012). We believe that all of creation is made in this duality and can be balanced in order to achieve harmony and peace, which is seen in the symbolic nature of our wampum. This is another teaching of wampum that lives with us today in all of our lives, despite the belts being stolen from us.
Linda Tuhiwai Smith suggests that in the 18th and 19th centuries “Indigenous…forms of knowledge…technologies and codes of social life…were regarded as ‘new’ discoveries by western science…These discoveries were commodified as property belonging to the cultural archive and body of knowledge of the west” which were then reproduced through this system. She further suggests that this was also an era of “collecting” artifacts, such as wampum, for the sake of “preservation” and that Indigenous people might rather call stealing. This is such the case for Wabanaki wampum belts, as David Francis, Passamaquoddy historian and linguist, tells us that “they were sold to a New York Museum” and to “Please return to the owner!” (2016). Along with the so-called “collecting”, settlers also misunderstood our ways of governance and perceived the act of giving wampum as a symbol of their “protection” and a pledge to their colonial laws, rather than a bond of alliance among equals (Brooks, 2019). In addition, they also mistook it for currency and, in some cases, would forcefully impose mortgages on Indigenous leaders and their land, demanding the payment to be made in wampum (Brooks, 2019). However, what is especially compelling about these examples, is that the settlers would reject this payment of wampum and force the mortgage into an English written deed. This highlights the connection between wampum and wikhikon and our forced assimilation into a written and political system that was used against us.
However, over time Indigenous leaders have adopted writing for their own creative and unique uses and began to “empower themselves with the very tools of colonization that have been used against them” (Grande, 2004). This suggests an epistemological shift, or a shift in our ways of knowing and being, showing our intellectual tradition of adaptation. Since time immemorial, we have survived using this intellect within the constantly changing environment around us, creating and using tools in a sustainable way that honored all of our relations. However, upon contact and the effects of settler colonialism, this survival shifted to what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance” or the active sense of presence and the continuation of native stories. Concisely, we used our intellect to create a shift in our ways of knowing and being in the face of colonization in order to continue our stories and resist colonialism; as m we are still here. This is shown in the concept and process of the Passamaquoddy term wikhikon.
As an oral culture, we have always believed that “our words have an alchemy that is capable of creating form” (Mitchell, 2018), which is symbolized by both wampum and wikhikon. Wikhikon originally referred to birch bark carvings but now denotes anything written, as seen in the Passamaquoddy dictionary. This highlights the Wabanaki’s practice of viewing image and word as interconnected, which Lisa Brooks points out contrasts European tradition that separates the two (2008). This is also the case for wampum with the ceremonial belts being referred to as kolusuwakon, or “speech.” We further see this interconnection from a linguistic analysis, as the term wikhikon is formed from the unprefixed verb stem wikh-, which denotes writing, drawing, and photographing. This verb stem is paired with the inanimate suffix -ikon which is a suffix commonly used for tools, such as tomhikon; cutting tool. Thus, we can view wikhikon as a “written tool” including both image and word. This analysis is in light of Lisa Brook’s definition of the Abenaki term for writing, awikhigan, as a “tool for image making, for writing, for transmitting an image or idea from one mind to another, over waterways, over time” (2008).
This is the case for my experience of writing this wikhikon. I am taking the images or ideas transmitted to me from my ancestors from their images or writing, along with the writings from Wabanaki and Indigenous scholars, and weaving a wikhikon of my own. It’s an ongoing process that creates both physical and internal landscapes, which is not suggesting the two are separate beings. Furthermore, Muscogee scholar Craig Womack, which Brooks also draws from, suggests that “The idea behind ceremonial chant is that language...will actually cause a change in the physical universe” and that “this element exists in contemporary Native writing” (1999). Therefore, the space of this paper is created by the energy of the actions and words from my relations across time and space, further traveling beyond the margins into the physical universe, or maybe even within you as you read along, evoking action, which can lead to change. From this we can begin to see a specific process of Wabanaki writing in which Lisa Brooks explains is highlighted by our languages revolving around activities and energy in motion; until an wikhikon “has taken shape as an instrument, the process is ongoing. Even when it is complete, that instrument can cause a whole new wave of activity to occur” (2008). I further add that this “energy” refers to the actions aligned with survivance, or a force that works towards the future and continued survival of the Wabanaki people. We use our intellect to convert that energy into many forms, such as public policies.
From this perspective, we can now see that the story of the WSL exemplifies the concepts, process, and power of the wikhikon. Concisely, that in order to reach its full potential and produce practical and political change, a specific process is needed to complete it. Furthermore, the energy behind the bill intends to “function as an educational policy grounded in anti-racism and decolonization” and thus works towards the future and continued survival of Wabanaki people, which is the energy that I suggest is involved in Wabanaki writing or image making. This analysis of the WSL as a wikhikon further informs the policy and the push for action. In convergence with the protocol and process of Wabanaki Diplomacy, which is seen in the use of our wampum belts and its many symbols, we have an undeniable framework to take the needed actions in order to implement the policy; to complete the wikhikon.
Furthermore, the needed action has already been put forth from both the WSC in their Final Report and in Rebecca Sockbeson’s article and Libra Report that I mentioned in the beginning of this story. Some of this action is currently taking place through the Wabanaki Studies Committee, not to be mistaken as the commission which consisted of tribal members appointed by the leaders of each Nation, which I have had the opportunity to become involved in. The Portland School System has also been advocates of the law and taking the time to build relationships with Wabanaki communities, with particular effort being put in by Social Studies teacher Fiona Hopper. However, until action is taken from the “major” stakeholders, such as the Department of Education and The University of Maine, the process of the bill remains incomplete, as the wikhikon is a process in which “we are all engaged in” (Brooks, 2008).
This needed action, put forth by Sockbeson, includes: 1. Reinstating the WSC with State funding and University support, 2. Hire an Indigenous Scholar in the College of Education, 3. Develop a Compulsory Course required for education majors on teaching Wabanaki Studies, and 4. Revise Licensure requirements/testing measurements to ensure Maine teachers demonstrate a readiness to comply with the law. This action would create National and historical precedents in the state of Maine, as “there are very few, if any, compulsory courses across the nation” (Sockbeson, 2019). Furthermore, the State of Maine is in a good position to take this action with the recent work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Ban on Native Mascots, and the recent signage project at the university of Maine, all examples of successful Wabanaki Diplomatic protocols. In addition, they even have a model to build off of from the University of Alberta, where Sockbeson is a Professor, that includes a compulsory course called Aboriginal Education and the Context for Professional Development.
In order to take action, I again suggest that all stakeholders, including the Maine DOE, Universities, and the tribes, to center Wabanaki Diplomacy and use the concepts and protocols of its tools, as seen in the uses of wampum and the wikhikon. Taking such a framework will be of significant help in the removal of barriers of the law and thus provide better implementation of the law across the state of Maine and complete the process of the wikhikon. The completion of this wikhikon will not only work towards the healing of Wabanaki Citizens, but healing of the relationship we have with non-native communities and the relationship both of us share with the land. Without the mobilization of truth, which the WSL advocates, there is no healing. Until protocol of the wikhikon is complete through Wabanaki Diplomacy, the call for anti-racist conviction as Political will towards decolonization continues.
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Nolan Altvater is a Passamaquoddy citizen from Sipayik who is a rising graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Nolan’s academic work involves weaving Wabanaki knowledge into education policy implementation and development, specifically regarding the implementation of the Wabanaki Studies Law. His passions are to help in developing an understanding of the Wabanaki and their ways of being and knowing to create spaces for Wabanaki youth at academic institutions while working towards the mobilization of truth, healing, repatriation, and indigenous futurities. In his undergraduate career, he was a part of the Wabanaki Youth and Science Program, an honorable mention for the Udall scholarship, and a University of Maine McGillicuddy Humanities Center Fellow. Outside of the classroom, he is a Wabanaki REACH board member, photographer, video journalist for sunlight media collective, and produces indigenous knowledge videos with Wabanaki community members for indigenous youth.