WHAT IS THE JOURNEY:
First Light is an ongoing, sustained learning journey between two cultures, Wabanaki culture and conservation culture, for the express purpose of expanding Wabanaki stewardship of land. Conservation leaders learn about Wabanaki land loss in Maine and about indigenous land loss across the Americas and then learn from the contemporary lives of each the five Wabanaki communities. Wabanaki leaders travel to land trust offices and conservation areas to learn about the philosophy, ideology and practical tools of conservation. Together, Wabanaki and conservationists create “third spaces” that are co-creations of both cultures. To-date, these third spaces have included a canoe expedition down the west branch of the Penobscot River and a major collaborative gathering at the foot of Katahdin. Future third space co-creations might include a culture camp for indigenous and non-indigenous youth or whatever the members of First Light feel would be helpful and transformative.
Those are the reasons to collaborate, and there are also many good reasons why the coming together of cultures in First Light is very difficult to begin and sustain.
First, because of a long history of betrayal and genocide, for Indigenous and non-native people to come together to talk about land is a charged topic anywhere in America and especially in Maine where the topic has been mostly untouched to fester for generations.
In their power and privilege, Maine conservation leaders and organizations could be filled with self-satisfaction at their past successes and have little motivation to leave their comfort zones to examine the past or to invest the time and resources necessary to work in the present with what some might call a small minority of people. And, there is blood memory inside many Wabanaki people of 350 years of colonization, oppression and isolation that leaves little time or inclination to invest resources in something arising from that history. And, there have been promises made in the present time between the conservation community and Wabanaki people that have been broken.
There are Wabanaki leaders we trust and value who have said this project of expanding Wabanaki stewardship of land is too little, too late. There are other Wabanaki leaders we trust and value who warned us that this collaboration might come across as just another ploy for progressive white people to claim “friendship” with Native people. Many Wabanaki people have rightly and justly questioned the conservation movement’s sincerity around sharing access to lands they own or have relationships in or to eventually repatriate some lands.
If First Light doesn’t keep going forward with our learning and pushing this work to its logical conclusions about equity, we will be guilty of all of these statements.
And, most profoundly, the desire of a privileged white community to “share” back land that once completely belonged to Wabanaki people can be hurtful and injurious. All of these feelings and assumptions are true and present, and they could easily become a solid wall that makes any communication, trust-building and positive work together impossible. Good will, alone, from either culture cannot overcome these realities. We must demonstrate at each step our capacity to learn, to evolve and to take action.
Our accomplishments are that there are more real projects to expand Wabanaki stewardship of land.
Some within First Light are working right now on mapping of hundreds of thousands of acres of conserved lands for the presence of ash and of the emerald ash borer. Some are running educational programs for Wabanaki youth and fully engaging Wabanaki elders in writing the management plans of lands we steward. Some are committed to loaning our funds to help Tribes acquire land, and some of us have recently done that at Nibezun and also helped to raise those funds. Some of us are working on public policy to improve tribal sustenance hunting rights. Some of us are working quietly and steadfastly to see that return to the Passamaquoddy tribe of their land at Meddybemps Lake.
While projects are important, we also seek to create good process. We feel good that in our first two years of programming we were able to devote considerable (but not enough) time to understanding Wabanaki land loss, to spending considerable time in each of the Wabanaki home grounds, to jointly co-creating a major gathering at Katahdin that reflected the needs and expectations of both communities, and that half of every dollar raised for this undertaking went directly to Wabanaki tribes and people.
We also succeeded in drafting a new legal tool, a cultural use and respect agreement, that was reviewed in advance by all the tribal attorneys and then shared and talked about at this gathering.
Our achievements are that we have come together under honest, transparent pretexts for reciprocal benefits.