Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Eric Brown, far left. debuts the University of Maine at Farmington’s new “Indigenous Land and Water Acknowledgement” before an event for the school’s Indigenous Peoples’ Week 2021 on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the Emery Community Arts Center in Farmington. The presentation on “#LandBack, Water Rights, and Decolonization in Wabanaki Territory” featured speakers — who are organizers, historians and filmmakers representing Penobscot and Abenaki communities — from left, Mali Obomsawin, Lokotah Sanborn and on-screen via Zoom, Dawn Neptune Adams and Maria Girouard. Obomsawin was an author of the new land acknowledgement statement. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — The University of Maine at Farmington has debuted a new “Indigenous Land and Water Acknowledgement” statement honoring the Indigenous people of Farmington, Franklin County and Maine that were displaced during colonization.

The new statements were first read during an event for the New Commons Project’s David Bowie series Oct. 7 and by Provost Eric Brown at the beginning of a #LandBack presentation for Indigenous Peoples’ Week on Wednesday, Oct. 13.

The debut is a part of UMF’s Indigenous Peoples’ Week 2021. The observation recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, Oct. 11, with “a weeklong series exploring Indigenous issues” via teach-ins, presentations and discussions featuring Indigenous voices from Farmington and Maine. The events featured speakers from the Penobscot Nation and Odanak Abenaki First Nation.

The statement was written to recognize and honor UMF’s occupation of  “the traditional homelands of the Abenaki people of Anmessokkanti, whose communities lived and sustained themselves along what we call the ‘Sandy River’ for millennia until very recent times.”

The newest version of the land acknowledgement statement was written by Mali Obomsawin of Odanak Abenaki First Nation — who grew up in Farmington and is now a musician, writer and an organizer and educator for racial justice and Indigenous sovereignty. Obomsawin also received input from Darren Ranco, a UMaine associate professor of anthropology, the Chair of Native American Programs and Coordinator of Native American Research and member of the Penobscot Nation.

Obomsawin is the executive director of Bomazeen Land Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for Wabanaki land rematriation, protection of “sacred, historic sites,” and forging a reconnection between the Wabanaki people and “the lands we’ve been expelled and displaced from,” Obomsawin said.

They are also a member of the Maine-based Indigenous and BIPOC led-and-focused organizations Sunlight Media Collective and Racial Equity and Justice.

Obomsawin was recommended by Ranco to the staff organizing the statement and week. This is because Obomsawin’s “roots are (in Farmington), historically, ancestrally as well as growing up,” they explained.

In an interview, Obomsawin reflected on hearing the “last Indian story myth” in social studies classes in the Mt. Blue school district and how it highlighted the “erasure …. and limited awareness about Wabanaki people in western Maine” and Farmington, as well as their ongoing presence as descendants today.

A previous, shorter land acknowledgement statement was created by Abenaki writer and scholar Lisa Brooks and New Commons Project Co-Directors Kristen Case and Stephen Grandchamp, among others.

The new Indigenous Land and Water Acknowledgement extends further, specifying the history of the Indigenous peoples of Farmington, what their lives looked like before colonization, how they were expelled from the land and a pledge for the university to partake in decolonization.

In the statement, Obomsawin focused on trying to “honor the true history of the area.” They did so by making the statement informational alongside the “pledge to honor … recognize and affirm the sovereignty of the Native nations in this territory,” the statement says.

The statement educates on the history, community and sustenance of life at Anmessokkanti, the original name of the Sandy River. It informs of Anmessokkanti’s “plentiful fish populations,” which was “a major food source” and made possible the cultivation of a variety of crops that “were then shared with Wabanaki communities” elsewhere in Maine.

“This network was disrupted by colonialism and the industry, pollution, and river damming that accompanied it,” the statement continues.

Obomsawin also felt it was important to expand the understanding of “who the Abenaki are.” The statement explains how the Abenaki of Wôlinak and Odanak (reservations in modern-day Quebec) originated from Western Maine and Farmington and were dispelled “after centuries of war, scalp bounty policies, and other tactics designed to extinguish the Abenaki from their own land,” the acknowledgement states.

The statement notes UMF’s role in colonization.

“We acknowledge that UMF inherited its campus at the expense of the Abenaki community … and recognize that the dispossession and expulsion of the Abenaki from their homeland is an ongoing injustice upheld by settler colonialism,” the statement says. “We pledge to bravely confront this painful reality.”

Obomsawin said that though “UMF wasn’t the one leading (the Norridgewock Massacre of 1724)” that led to the diaspora of the Abenaki people of Anmessokkanti, “that doesn’t mean that (UMF) doesn’t have any responsibility for repairing and repatriating land to us.”

“UMF came in after the fact — it is an inheritor of all of the privileges, the spoils of that genocide,” they said. “And its stronghold, and its resource hoarding in that area impacts us. We weren’t able to come back and be in Farmington and reestablish that (presence).”

Some have raised critiques about land acknowledgement statements that don’t go beyond a declaration and feel “performative and exclusively to alleviate guilt.”

Case also acknowledged the potential for the statement “to be or become an empty gesture, something that is about off setting white guilt rather than entering into a dialogue.”

As a result, Case said it was “imperative” that the statement come directly from Indigenous voices and perspectives.

But what action is UMF taking to see that decolonization efforts are consistently implemented beyond the statement?

Gaelyn Aguilar, an associate professor of anthropology and one of the organizers of the week, sees UMF’s Indigenous Peoples’ Week, along with the organization and prioritization of Indigenous voices that preceded the events, as the start to “a process that requires due diligence.” Case agrees.

“This week is about … reflecting on what a deeper and ongoing commitment to enacting transformation and redress might look like for us and for that, the circle needs to be large,” Aguilar said.

Nicole Kellett, an associate professor of anthropology who helped to organize, said that they have presented plans to the president’s cabinet on “developing a council that would entail faculty, staff, general public indigenous representation and students” working toward the institution’s decolonization efforts and advocacy for Indigenous sovereignty.

This council might work on “bilingual signage,” “the representation of the naming on our buildings,” perhaps a “stop day in the spring where different divisions on campus in lieu of classes all come together to talk about their discipline and their area of study and how it’s been colonized,” engaging with Indigenous partners, and overall ensuring that the needs and boundaries of Indigenous people are respected, Kellett said.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Eric Brown added that the administration is working to incorporate decolonization principles, along with “general social justice, diversity and inclusion” into the university’s 2021-2024 strategic plan.

A powerpoint presentation of the strategic plan shared at the end of September and a draft of the plan shared in March do not specifically include mention of decolonization or Indigenous people, though the strategic plan draft does outline plans to formulate a “University-wide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Plan.”

All that said, there are still improvements to be made at UMF that aren’t yet in the works.

First, Obomsawin believes that education about colonization, ongoing land occupation, the history of Indigenous people from Farmington and decolonization needs to be incorporated into the curriculum for students and training for staff and faculty.

“I do believe that education is the most fundamental and important tenant of ally ship and achieving justice,” they said.

Because UMF “occupies a lot of land,” Obomsawin also wants the institution to “build a relationship with the Abenaki people, with Bomazeen Land Trust, to aid in whatever way they can, offer resources, material reparations to our people.”

Obomsawin also raised concerns about a lack of Wabanaki faculty, which Kellett also identified.

“We don’t have a lot of or really any Native Americans in administration or on faculty,” Kellett said.

Brown again cited the strategic plan as a partial solution to that lack of representation on staff.

He added that changes in “recruitment strategies,” “hiring practices,” “the way we word the language in our advertisements,” “making sure that we call attention to our need for greater diversity on the campus and that minority candidates are supported through that,” are important — though it was unclear if these are active plans to bring on more Indigenous staff or currently just ideas.

In addition, Kellett said that better support needs to go toward enrolled Indigenous students and the recruitment of prospective Indigenous students through “potential scholarships,” continuing to address the histories of Indigenous people “head on,” and making the campus a safe space for them to “feel comfortable and supported.”

“This is just the beginning,” Case said. “We recognize that there’s a long, long road ahead, and that there are elements of mistrust and real pain involved in the history of settler colonialism in Maine.”

The final event of Indigenous Peoples’ Week 2021 is Friday, Oct. 15, 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. — a presentation and discussion led by Ranco called “Decolonizing the University Through Placed-Based Agreements with Tribal Nations.”

Following its conclusion, information on the week, as well as films “The Penobscot: Ancestral River, Contested Territory” and “The Saga Continues” will still be available to view at https://www.umf.maine.edu/diat/indigenous-peoples-week/.

UMF’s full “Indigenous Land and Water Acknowledgement” can be read at https://www.umf.maine.edu/about/indigenous/.

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