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Tribe celebrates return of island [archive]

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Tribe celebrates return of island

Domtar Industries Inc. viewed Gordon's Island simply as an acquisition last year when it bought the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and paper mill in Baileyville.

But to the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Muwinwi Monihq, or Bear Island located on Big Lake, is a sacred place where ancestors who died of smallpox are buried.

Men, women and babies, their numbers unknown, were placed there in makeshift graves about 150 years ago. They were members of the Bear Clan.

On Tuesday, the Montreal-based papermaker returned the island to the Passamaquoddys in a formal ceremony held at Peter Dana Point near Indian Township.

"The white men came and infected them" with smallpox, said tribal elder Sylvia Gabriel, 71, who spoke before the ceremony. "They got sick and died. Some of them came over to the Point here to get help ... but they were shot and turned back."

Wayne Newell, a member of the Maine-Indian Tribal State Commission, also recalled the occasion.

"You have to picture this place without the roads, and people just lived in different parts of the lake," Newell said. "When the smallpox epidemic came, the people who lived on the island, the ones that died, wanted to be buried here at this cemetery [Peter Dana Point]. The community here knew enough about the infectious nature of this [disease] that they literally fought them back so they wouldn't be exposed, to save themselves, basically. They are buried there [on Gordon's Island]."

During the ceremony, state Rep. Donald Soctomah, who was instrumental in getting the island returned to the tribe, described the spot as a sacred place that the tribe wanted to preserve "to ensure our ancestors' remains are ... given all the respect they deserve."

Pleasant Point Gov. Rick Doyle addressed the friendship the tribe has forged with the county's largest employer. He praised Domtar for having the 'courage and wisdom' to return the island to the tribe.

Doyle recalled G-P's reluctance to give the 25-acre parcel back, even though the tribe on numerous occasions offered to buy it.

Roger Paul, the cultural coordinator at the Indian Township Health Center, welcomed the more than 300 people who attended. "Thank you all for sharing our celebration so that the sacred home of our ancestors will once again be under our care," he said.

Paul then related a dream experienced by tribal elder Joanne Dana, who saw "schools of fish coming from the Gordon's Island direction back to the reservation. She told us that those fish represented our ancestors. That dream was a premonition of today's events."

Darrell Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Arne Neptune of the Penobscot Nation performed the sacred pipe ceremony. The two men are members of the Wabanaki Repatriation Committee, which strives to return ancestral remains in the nation's museums back to tribes.

Raising the pipe in the four directions, north, south, east and west, the two men prayed to the great spirit who protects land and sky.

Unrehearsed, an American eagle flew overhead. "We have a saying. Our ancestors look through the eyes of the eagle," Soctomah said, quietly looking up at the sky. "It is truly a special day."

Domtar President Raymond Royer said it was "a privilege for me to transfer back to the Passamaquoddy Tribe the deed to this ancestral land which played such an important role in ensuring your survival and guaranteeing your future."

In accepting the deed, tribal Gov. Richard Stevens described the tribe's rich history. "People have lived on this land for over 12,000 years. We are the Eastern tribe of the United States, so the sun greets us first here. Today is a very special day for my people, especially for the elders of the tribe, who have dreamed about this day," he said.

Soctomah introduced tribal elders Jim Mitchell, 83, and Gabriel. He credited them with keeping the oral traditions of the tribe alive.

Mitchell praised Domtar for returning a valuable piece of the tribe's history. He equated the return of the island to the removal of the Berlin Wall. "This to me is more than that. It is really a beautiful thing for this to happen on the reservation," he said.

After the ceremony, several people traveled the more than three miles to the island.

Years ago, a priest at Indian Township arranged to have a large white cross erected on the shores of Gordon's Island. It is the first thing a person sees when arriving by boat.

One of those who made the trip was former tribal state Rep. Madonna Soctomah. Her eyes misted as she described how she felt each time she stepped onto the island.

"The connectedness to my ancestors; what it means to be truly part of a culture that is very unique, that has survived for so many generations through all the changes and everything, and we are still here. We are still here," she said very quietly.

Madonna Soctomah and Gracie Davis, a bilingual teacher at Pleasant Point, walked solemnly to where their ancestors are buried. Then Davis, surrounded by several young people, performed an honor song. With the rhythmic beating of her drum, Davis paid respect to her ancestors. She then laid a cedar bough on the graves. She said cedar, like tobacco, is part of the tribe's ceremonies.

Arne Neptune and Darrell Newell performed the first pipe ceremony.

Now, Neptune said, looking at the sky, the spirits of the Bear Clan of the Passamaquoddy can rest because the island once again belongs to the tribe.

--written by Diana Graettinger, Bangor Daily News

Additional Reading

 Indian Culture
 The Passamaquoddy
 Passamaquoddy Legends
 Maine Indians

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