Another Viewpoint: Rethinking Maine’s bicentennial: The stories we tell and the power they hold

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Every day on my way to school growing up, I passed by the Blockhouse in New Gloucester. I still remember the story I was told about its origins, as I’m sure most people who have grown up in this town do.

The Blockhouse was where 12 founding families lived after relocating here from Gloucester, Massachusetts. The structure that I passed on my daily commute is a 3-foot-tall log cabin-like model of the original blockhouse. When I was little, I thought that all 12 families literally lived in that 3-foot-tall building, curious as to how they all fit in there together. I figured people must have been smaller back then.

But neither of these stories, the one I was told and the one I imagined, is the whole story. The way we tell stories matters – who gets to tell them, from which perspectives, and what parts get included or left out.

Most of the history I was taught about the United States, Maine, and New Gloucester was from the perspective of white, European colonists. The names of towns, rivers, mountains were mostly English words named after mostly white men or European counterparts. This inevitably meant that certain perspectives, narratives, and historical figures and events were simply left out.

And when certain stories or perspectives get omitted, they get systematically erased.

The story of the Blockhouse is not the quaint story of 12 pioneer families venturing north and living together communally on untouched, uninhabited land. The story is more complex and requires us to view it from different perspectives and through the context of the time.

Settlers from Gloucester did in fact make their way up the coast from Massachusetts, eventually building 19 homes and a sawmill in the area now known as Gloucester Hill and Stevens Brook. However, they abandoned the settlement under threat, and their homes and sawmill were burned by the Abenaki who had been hunting, fishing, and living here for thousands of years and who were most likely enraged by English colonists’ decimation of Abenaki populations through disease and murder and their steady encroachment onto Abenaki land.

By the time settlers from Gloucester made their way here in 1737, the Wabanaki Confederacy, of which the Abenaki are part, had experienced kidnapping and enslavement at the hands of European explorers in the 1500s, up to a 90 percent population loss due to European diseases between 1616 and 1619, and continued threats to their traditional homelands. Settlers had already been driven out of the area by the Abenaki in 1676 and 1688. The tribes did not give consent when the residents of Gloucester were granted rights to their land by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1737.

This systematic and intentional eradication of native land and people can be considered nothing short of genocide.

It seems no wonder, then, that they would feel threatened and fight back against colonists’ claim to their land here in present-day New Gloucester, subsequently burning their homes. When the settlers returned again in 1753, they built the Blockhouse to barricade themselves against the Abenaki, whose land they were inhabiting. The 12 families lived together in this fort for several years until, according to a town history included in the New Gloucester Comprehensive Plan, “the Indian threat had passed,” after which they rebuilt their homes and the sawmill on Stevens Brook.

When I learned this story as a child, it was not the full story. Although a law was passed in 1991 mandating the teaching of Wabanaki history, there has been far from universal compliance across the state despite an abundance of resources.

I learned a narrow history that uses as its starting point the European “victory” over the Abenaki. While the curriculum may have changed in the 20 years since I’ve been in school, when I was growing up, I did not learn the complexities of the hundreds of years of struggle before that point.

I didn’t learn about the many ways that Wabanaki culture is still woven through our way of life today. I didn’t know those quintessential Maine activities that I grew up enjoying – canoeing, snowshoeing, maple sugaring – were skills passed down from the Wabanaki to colonists. I didn’t make the connection that when my Little League team was named the Indians, I was wearing a racist jersey that demeans and exoticizes the native communities that have been living on this land for thousands of years.

I didn’t realize that until 1999 there was a fraternal organization in New Gloucester called the “Improved Order of Redmen,” a group that was formed solely by and for white men that appropriated Native American names and iconography. I didn’t know that the Wabanaki Confederacy in Maine is today made up of the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, and Maliseet but that many more tribes previously existed.

I didn’t realize that Wabanaki children in Maine were removed from their families at a rate five times greater than nonnative children and that the tribes are still fighting for their rights in Maine. I didn’t learn that the Royal River was originally called Wescustogo, that Lisbon Falls was named Amirkangan, or that the Portland peninsula was Machegony.

The renaming of places, rivers, and landmarks is an intentional and concerted effort to eradicate the history and sovereignty of Native Americans. In order to fully understand the history of a place, we must dig below the surface of the whitewashed stories we are told to discover what has been omitted and why.

As Maine celebrates its bicentennial, it is imperative that the celebrations of people and events over the last 200 years do not mask and diminish the rich and complex history of this land and its people for thousands of years before Europeans arrived or statehood was declared.

The all-too-common assumption that this land’s history began when white people arrived is a dangerous oversimplification that perpetuates the colonial mentality. It is this mentality that erases the cultures and people that have occupied this land for generations. We must learn and teach the whole story of a place and understand that perspective and context matter.

Incomplete and biased stories have the power to control, subjugate, and justify the continued domination of entire populations and cultures.

Laura Fralich is a high school social studies teacher who grew up in New Gloucester and has returned there to raise a family.