Lessons Learned from Nibezun

First Light Learning Journey – February 27, 2019

Machias Savings Bank in Brewer

Susan Caldwell’s notes:

Present: Shiwa Noh (Nibezun Board), Tim Shay (Nibezun Board), Ciona Ulbrich, Peter Forbes, Bryan Wentzell, Jerry Bley, Steve Tatko, Eric Topper, Erica Kaufman, Kristin Peet, Patrick Watson, Aaron Englander, Aaron Mequier, Bill Haviland, Jess Burton, Alice Kelley, Lee Cataldo, Tom Duffus, Kristin Peet, Stephen Hufnagel, Molly Payne Wynne, Jenny Ward and Susan Caldwell

We gathered shortly after 9:00 am and Tim led us in a prayer. We watched a short video from the Nibezun website. Nibezun = medicine. Our gathering began with Shiwa and Tim sharing their stories of connecting with the Nibezun land and the power of the place to bring healing. Shiwa shared her belief in the power of prayer and this special place along the Penobscot River to be a place for healing ceremony. We need to come together for the children and the grandchildren. She shared her own story of the importance of being a mother and also the resistance from some on Indian Island in the Penobscot community as she is Korean.

Tim’s mother is Maliseet. His father is Penobscot. He grew up in Maine and went away to Santa Fe for art school and many years following. He is a sculptor. In 2004 he came back to Maine after 20 years away to sell his art and stayed since then. The spirit drew him back. The Native American church is important to him. Suffolk University owned the land at what is now known as Nibezun for about 5 years. It was formerly an equine therapy center before the University acquired it. The University allowed Indigenous people to use the site for ceremony. The Wabanaki Cultural Preservation Coalition was established as a non-profit. The culture is the medicine. Intergenerational trauma is a lasting stress on Indigenous people in Maine and beyond. Tim and others put up a tee pee for ceremony and began to pray. There was a fire in the tee pee that was extinguished with maple water. Tim believed they could acquire the land as a place of healing.

The University put the land on the market and they received a cash offer for $650,000 from someone in Texas, which inspired action. Tim and others who were interested in the land didn’t even have a bank account, but they had faith that they could acquire the land. Shiwa took a risk and invested her own money to commit the down payment to allow this journey to begin. Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) and The Conservation Fund (TCF) provided bridge loans. In November 2016 the Nibezun organization was formed, a board was established, and they started to get organized to do fundraising to realize their dream. In October of 2018 the loans were paid off. They are still exhaling! It has been quite a journey!

Tim is a sculptor and visionary. His people are hurting. There is joy in healing. It’s important to reestablish community in our homeland. The Nibezun land is not reservation land and they need to pay taxes and raise funds to maintain the land. The mission of Nibezun relates to the culture as medicine. Water is the first medicine and ceremony starts with water from the Penobscot River. Water takes the shape of the vessel it lies within and transforms itself to that shape. Each of us is made up of water. Help to reestablish community with air, water, fire and earth. Make a way for future generations. We can’t do this alone. We need community. To put up a tee pee each person takes a pole. Each person has a gift to share. We each plant our pole and share our gifts and the tee pee is raised. The creators endowed each of us with a gift. Nibezun is inclusive. The decisions we make today will affect the next seven generations and we can’t afford to exclude anyone. There is cohesiveness within a community and an opportunity to re-create ourselves in this world today. Taking the culture out of a people causes harm and we need to put it back into the next generations to promote healing. We need people who can listen to the spirit.

Ciona shared that there is now a larger community that came together to allow the land at Nibezun to be acquired. She helped with the “nuts and bolts that tweaked the wrench” and helped to bring the project to fruition. Many worked together to combine vision, faith and reality to acquire 80 acres of riverfront land with enormous structures on it! She talked about crafting the internal message to decision-makers within MCHT and TCF to encourage them to take this risk and provide loans trusting in Nibezun founders to raise the necessary funds. It was not simple. Ciona talked to her board about this in the context of being a community conservation project. It was critical that Shiwa had the funds for the initial down payment. The group needed time to raise money and had 2 years to do so. It’s all about people and relationships and commitment to the goals! TCF included Ciona’s commitment to an ongoing partnership with Tim and others on the newly formed Nibezun board as a requirement for the loan. Through many challenges they succeeded in raising $750,000 in two years to complete the acquisition!

As many of us know, getting through the paperwork and required documentation to get conservation loans is not easy so Nibezun founders had a steep and incredibly fast learning curve. They received training in fundraising and were successful with a few big asks, which was very empowering. The clash of cultures between native and non-native people was noticed, but they cared for each other and worked through the challenges. One specific challenge was retaining a good grant writer to help support the work. Lissa and Ciona put Nibezun on the agenda of the Maine Funders Network to raise awareness of this particular need. Approximately 10% of the gifts to the project were from outside of Maine. There were a couple of private philanthropists who really stepped up to get the fundraising going. Crowd sourcing and GoFundMe campaign was encouraging in reaching many people even though individual gifts were small. Shiwa noted the importance of that emotional support she felt from so many who believed in their cause. Much of the funds came from grants to Maine Foundations. Overall, hundreds of people contributed to the acquisition.

Peter asked Tim, Shiwa and Ciona to say what they would do differently next time. Tim encouraged all to come to a ceremony at Nibezun. It’s important to connect to the spirit as eventually the body will return to the earth. Take the time to be still and grow roots and listen intently. One can also communicate without talking in silent ceremony together. Focus on connecting with the Creator. Ciona said it was challenging finding the balance of not getting too involved in the project personally. Instead, she served as an advisor and coach. Ciona appreciated the enthusiasm and excitement that comes with working with a newly-formed non-profit. It was noted that the MCHT board gave more to the Nibezun project than was requested by Ciona, and yet there is a sense that there is still some resistance from some MCHT staff/board to non-traditional projects such as this. Shiwa appreciates Ciona’s open hear and listening skills. She understood the need for a place of healing. She provided good and helpful boundaries. Tim noted the value of the native language. Passadumkeag means “above the gravel bar” which describes the geography and location along the Penobscot River. You can still see evidence of old fishing wiers where the early Penobscot Indians caught fish. Olamon means “the place of red paint” and the language connects people to the land. Others should research and use the old place names to keep that language alive. The Nibezun acquisition allowed access to Olamon Island.

In closing before we shared a meal together, Tim and Shiwa confirmed their warm welcome to all of us to come spend time at Nibezun! Come and learn and listen and heal. Some people joined a field trip to Nibezun’s open house in the afternoon.