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Ready to tell overdue story
Maine Indian history worthy addition to school load

I never thought I'd live to see the day when the State of Maine would bite the bullet and reverse 400 years of silence and cover-up, and require Maine children to be taught the real history of Native Americans before and after the arrival of Europeans here at the beginning of the 17th century. And to tell you the truth, I'm still not convinced it will happen, even though our Legislature and governor have now passed and signed a bill requiring Maine public schools to teach children of all backgrounds about the history of Maine's Indian peoples. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Donna Loring, the Penobscot tribal representative to the Legislature.

Ironically, she never got to vote for her bill, because Maine Indians elected by their tribes to represent them in Augusta have never been allowed to vote. Some representation. Maine Indians are used to that sort of discrimination, and much, much worse. Over four centuries they have managed somehow to survive a concerted effort by English European settlers to exterminate them entirely, and equally deadly epidemics of European diseases for which they had no immunity. They've been forced off the land they occupied for thousands of years, finally being forced onto three small tribal reservations, two in Washington County, and one on Old Town's Indian Island in the Penobscot River, where for centuries they were forced to live in poverty on Maine welfare handouts, even though their 1694 Treaty with Massachusetts, provided them with adequate lands to maintain their way of life in dignified self-sufficiency.


When Maine became a state in 1820, however, even though its separation from the Bay State called for Maine to assume the responsibilities of that treaty, any pretense of dealing fairly with our Indians went out the window. Before long the Indian lands had been given to whites in the areas involved, and only the three tiny reservations remained. Many Indians fled the state. I've been writing about Maine's Indians since November of 1967, when I got a call one evening from a young lawyer, recently arrived in Eastport, who had become the first lawyer in the county willing to represent Indians. He called me because five white hunters from Massachusetts, unable to hunt on Sunday, had decided to look for women on the Passamaquoddy Reservation in Perry, next to Eastport. When they left that night, a 56-year-old Indian named Peter Francis, lay dead outside the home of his cousin, fatally beaten with a four-foot length of two by four, after he'd told the white men they'd find no women interested in entertaining them. After covering the ensuing trial for the Portland papers, a trial in which predictably only one white man was charged, and he was found not guilty, I covered Indian affairs for the papers until I left in 1970. And since I started writing weekly Maine history columns nearly 12 years ago, upwards of 50 those columns have dealt specifically with Maine's Indians.


Anybody who bothers to understand the history of Maine's Indians, especially since the arrival of Europeans, has to struggle to overcome an official silence. The only early writings that seriously tried to describe and understand the Indians here were done by Jesuit priests who lived among them, and since France lost our 80-year French and Indian Wars, there was no audience for their work in Maine. And given the truth of what happened here, it's not surprising that officialdom has never been interested in presenting an accurate picture of our behavior towards the Indians. For the most part, Maine's media has given only lip service to the subject.

There was a time in the 1870's when Gannet Books, the book-publishing arm of the Gannett Newspapers, approached me with a proposal that I write a book about the history of Maine's Indians. I already knew enough about the subject to realize that any accurate, no holds barred account could run into trouble among the defenders of the status quo. Nonetheless, not being interested in writing a bland examination of Indian arts and crafts, their quaint hunting and fishing based culture, and the like, I gave the book editor a chapter outline that dealt with the treacheries, massacres and virtual extermination the Indians had endured at the hands of the English settlers they had befriended. "Too heavy-handed," he judiciously exclaimed, adding that he didn't want a book focused on the sins of the white man. Which meant, of course, that he didn't want a history of Maine Indians at all, but rather a nicely illustrated coffee table type book not calculated to upset anybody's grandmother. He suggested that I submit a non-offensive outline, which I politely declined to do, and we parted amicably.

Today, fortunately, a good deal of excellent research and writing on Maine Indian history is being done by University of Maine scholars, and if the 15-member commission being formed to implement the new curriculum in Maine schools wants to, it can give children something fine. It can also continue to gloss over the real truth, however, and if that happens, it might be better if the bill had never passed. For it is absolutely true that unless you know the real history of the Indians, you don't know the real history of Maine.

--written by Bill Williamson, former state government worker

Additional Reading

 Maine Native American History
 Passamaquoddy Language
 Penobscot Indians

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