LEWISTON — “We are never going to be the future; we are always going to be the now.” That summed up John Bear Mitchell’s explanation Friday noon of how Maine’s Native Americans view their place in the world.

In a Great Falls Forum presentation titled, “Maine Indians, Wabanaki Peoples – Our Past and Present Stories,” he emphasized the vital role storytelling has in tribal culture.

Mitchell, who is Wabanaki Center Outreach and Student Development coordinator for the University of Maine System, addressed a large multiage audience in Lewiston Public Library’s Callahan Hall. He said Maine’s Native American population needs advocates at this point in their lives, and he cited recent periods of both cultural and economic challenge for his people. Casinos and fisheries are among current issues involving Maine’s four tribes, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet, he said.

Prompted by a question from the audience, Mitchell said people who want to be effective advocates for the Native Americans of Maine should observe some important principles.

“Humanize us,” he said. “Give us our history; don’t take it away. Don’t make things up.”

Mitchell opened his talk with a brief and timely lesson on the calendar. He said the Wabanaki name for the month of March is “Starvation Month.” That’s because hunting is poor and harvested crops are nearly gone.

He told a tale of an old man who was a village teacher. For uncounted years, the young and old had gathered each day for stories, but one day the man did not appear. A boy who was sent to find him saw the man transformed into a “floating light,” and the people were left with the message that they no longer needed his daily stories.

“’Everyone of you has a story,’” the spirit in the white light said, according to Mitchell’s tale.

“That’s what the Wabanaki people are built upon,” Mitchell said. “You already have what you need embedded in you, but you need to share it.”

Mitchell also told a story from a more recent time with a similar twist. He recalled the early 1950s when the Penobscot Nation’s Indian Island at Old Town had no bridge. In Native American storytelling style, he narrated the history when a bridge was proposed but funding would cover only two piers. The chief agreed that building only two piers was better than nothing, and in time it was found that condemned bridges upriver could be floated and placed on the Indian Island piers.

However, the new bridge was not always seen as a blessing, Mitchell said. A chief declared that, “’For every dollar that comes across that bridge, two go the other way,’” Mitchell said.

Mitchell told the audience that more recently the loss to the Penobscot Nation has changed from dollars to culture.

“We’re not going anywhere without friends,” he said, urging the audience to become involved and study the issues.

“The future is now, and always will be,” he said.

Mitchell is a member of the Penobscot Nation on Indian Island and is employed by the University of Maine to teach Wabanaki history and multicultural diversity. He is an accomplished Native American storyteller and for many years served as an Arts in Education Touring Artist, visiting Maine schools to present stories and songs of the Wabanaki peoples.

Extra seating was brought into Callahan Hall to accommodate an overflow crowd. Rick Speer, director of Lewiston Public Library, said Friday’s attendance was among the largest in the 17 seasons of Great Falls Forum presentations.

The Great Falls Forum is co-sponsored by the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, Bates College, Lewiston Public Library and the Sun Journal.


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