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Pursuing Decolonization at the University of Southern Maine

David Everson, PhD

Research Fellow, Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies

March 6, 2018

Song for Machigonne

Machigonne, your truest name before the French and English came to

raid the land of her tallest trees and pull the fish from her blue knee.

The fur they took in trade for pots and drink and rusty blades, could not sate

their endless hunger or abate their supernatural greed.

Oh, Machigonne, your name is dust.

You have begun to bleed...

Machigonne, just one of many, first become Casco, then Old Falmouth,

years wore on and Portland Maine became the name.

The massacre you blame us for is but the story of your shame,

those sins for which you must atone.

Machigonne was not your own.

—Mihku Paul (Maliseet)

Greetings! My name is David Everson and I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine (USM). I was born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and became aware of CAIRNS a couple of years back while I was conducting dissertation research on the dominant culture’s memory of the American Indian Movement, and the broader “privilege narratives” used to legitimate the white-Native racial order in South Dakota and Minnesota. I will devote my next report to outlining the latter, and how my upbringing amidst the settler colonial narratives in South Dakota continues to motivate my overall research agenda. For now I will turn to recent collaborative efforts at USM to enhance our student, and broader community’s, understandings of Maine’s Wabanaki peoples.   

Just last week I wrapped up a series of public events here on campus on the continuing forms of colonization confronting the state’s Wabanaki communities (Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet, Micmac, Abenaki). “Race and participatory democracy” has served as USM’s thematic focus for the academic year, and to no surprise for those of us working in Western educational institutions, the “People of the Dawn” (Wabanaki) had largely been absent from the broader conversation.

I am a relative newcomer to Wabanaki territory, arriving in Machigonne just last August to begin a faculty position in the sociology department. While I was interested in continuing my research into the dominant cultural narratives surrounding the white-Native racial order in my home state of South Dakota, I was also eager to understand Indigenous adaptation and resistance to European and Euro-American colonization in northern New England. As it is across this continent, the latter is a story of survival in the face of a coordinated state-Church campaign of physical and cultural genocide that left a trail of destruction and intergenerational trauma in its wake.

Yet I also quickly became aware that the brutal legacies of Maine’s colonial past were continuing to mobilize tireless remedial efforts in the present. At the forefront of these efforts is Maine-Wabanaki REACH, an Indigenous advocacy organization crucial to the formulation and implementation of the historic Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (MWTRC). At the time of its signing in 2012, the MWTRC was the first state-tribal agreement to focus on healing the historical trauma surrounding the expropriation of Native children through boarding schools and foster care practices. In addition, the MWTRC continues to serve as an Indigenous-model of reconciliation, with its focus on acknowledging intergenerational trauma while pursuing healing through the regeneration of Wabanaki cultural beliefs and traditions.

Beyond implementing the MWTRC’s final recommendations (read report here), Wabanaki-REACH continues to advocate and spread awareness of Wabanaki history and sovereignty. Similar to CAIRNS, REACH’s educational efforts often entail building cross-cultural networks and alliances with Native and non-Native communities throughout the state.

Since arriving at USM I have attempted to bring more attention to issues surrounding Indigenous sovereignty, both in Maine and beyond. Yet as someone of Euro-American ancestry who has directly benefitted from the genocidal policies enabling US settler colonialism, including the very land that sustains my current institutional role, I remain conscious that such educational outreach must be guided by, and whenever possible, directed by Native communities. Just as my own research on Euro-American attitudes toward American Indians is informed by my socialization into the dominant cultural narratives surrounding white-Native inequality in South Dakota, so too must our collective understandings of the histories and ongoing processes of colonization be derived from Indigenous voices.

As such, while I recruited students and public participants for our February series on “race and participatory democracy,” REACH formulated the structure and implemented the content of all three events. The first workshop on February 13th included a tremendously powerful interactive map exercise, where a large cloth map of the state of Maine is set out on the floor (see picture below). Participants then learn of various events that amplify the history of European colonization of Wabanaki communities; territory shrinks, disease ravages, families turn their backs on children returning from boarding schools—in the end 45 initial participants are reduced to a handful crammed onto a few remaining pieces of cloth. 

As powerful as the map exercise was for illuminating Wabanaki history, student reactions after the event were even more striking. Despite being born and raised in Maine, this was the first time that many had ever encountered such a history lesson. Indeed, I continue to be struck by the fact that the overwhelming majority of my students claim to never have heard the term “Wabanaki”—many are simply perplexed to learn that Native Americans are still living in Maine.

As an educator my central mission is to confront colonization as an ongoing process that continues to be transmitted through our dominant educational institutions. The series of Wabanaki events at USM, collaboratively organized with REACH, represents what I hope will be a sustained dialogue and practice related to the decolonization of both our institution and broader Portland community.

The cloth map of Maine used for the “Exploring Maine/Wabanaki History” participatory exercise.

While I may currently find myself on the Atlantic coast, my heart and soul will always remain tied to South Dakota. I couldn’t be happier that Dr. Howe was receptive to my initial overtures to assist CAIRNS in whatever way that I can. For my love of my home state is continually and deeply beset by the widespread ignorance, and often outright hostility, that characterizes the dominant culture’s approach to the Oceti Sakowin communities of South Dakota. I look forward to future collaborations, solidarity-building, and student engagement with CAIRNS, and am so grateful to be given the opportunity to participate in the Research Fellows program.