Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Becoming Native To A Place — Coleen O'Connell

From the banks of Thompson Creek in the St. George’s River watershed in the great state of Maine

For those of you who awaken each day to another day of sunshine it may not be known to you that there are those who feel responsible for the return of the sun each day. Twenty years ago, upon adopting a new homeland in Maine, I immediately began to explore the native history of the land. I had never read of the Wabanaki Confederacy in any of my history books nor heard of the northeast tribes who call themselves the Micmac, Maliseet, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Abenaki. This confederacy knows themselves as the “People of the Dawn” and they hold a responsibility on Turtle Island (North America) to call up the sun each morning.

On the eastern most point of the United States in a place in Maine where the waters were once filled with cod and whales, I am awakened in the dark to the sound of a rattle shaking near my head. My native friend, gkiesotonomook, is rousing us to action. I rise, dress and silently walk the path to the ocean’s edge. First light is announcing itself. With sweet grass lit, a smudging ceremony purifies each of us. As my friend faces the eastern ocean and raises his arms, a school of harbor porpoise passes quickly off shore – synchronized fins cutting through the dark water. A seal pops its curious head up in front of us. The ocean is calm this morning though a small breeze blows the smudge smoke toward the east.

Though not understanding the language of the prayer, I resonate with the earnestness in which my native friend calls forth to the directions. The intentions of his every movement and each word spoken brings with it increasing lightness. Pink and indigo streaks are beginning to lace the eastern sky. Black is shifting to dark purple out on the water. The spruce and fir trees are turning green as the blanket of night is lifted. The prayers continue with an increased tempo. As the sun peeks over the horizon my friend shouts a greeting of welcome. Tears roll down my cheek in a rush of primordial recognition. Another day has begun on Turtle Island. He turns with a big grin and announces “Let’s make some coffee and have some grub.”

How do I become native to this place? The local ancestors of the first white settlers to Maine (which was then part of Massachusetts) claim that your family must live here 3 or 4 generations before you can say you are native. The hippies that came in the 70’s and had children, who are now having children, cannot yet say they are natives. “Just because a cat has her kittens in the oven doesn’t make them bisquits” the old white guys proclaim. It occurs to me that the concept of Native has been contextualized and I wonder what my Indian friend would say to the bisquit joke?

I recently read somewhere that if you are native to a place, you must be able to tell it’s stories. Whether or not I can ever become native to this place, I am surely making it my home. I drink its waters, eat its wild berries, warm myself with its wood, and bask in the wild beauties of each season, including mud and black fly season. I eat lobster and blue mussels, grow potatoes and squash, nurture an apple orchard, and wonder how to get the wood chuck to stop living under my house and eating my flowers. I am an apprentice to the order of life in this wooded Eden. I am collecting stories each day I live on this small piece of land in midcoast Maine. Like the bear that wandered in to eat out of the bird feeder; or the porcupine that has her babies each year in the crawl space under my house; or the beaver that built an incredible pond on our stream – but then were eradicated by local trappers whom I had a confrontation with. I document the changes with photos that will collect over the years – taken each season at the same spot. I have instituted rituals that arise out of this place... and I love that others join me. This spring when the adolescent male turkey was practicing his mating warble in my front yard, I chided him for sounding more like a dog than a turkey. I wished him luck as he headed into the woods seemingly in search of the willing partner. Next year I hope he is back in full regalia and accomplished sex talk ... I can only wait and wonder.

Silently, and without fanfare, the Native Americans of North America continue their ceremonies that entwine their lives within the web of life. The Hopi’s gather ceremonially in their plazas; the Lakota dance and fast during four-day Sundances; the Makah conduct their ceremonial whale hunt. In our fast paced consumer culture, these ceremonies go unnoticed... relegated to another time, another worldview. I used to be confused by all the different Native cultures around the world proclaiming that their mountain, or their ritual site was the center of the Universe... that life arose from these special places. How could this be that there could be so many different “center of the universes”? In my westernized thinking – there could only be one center. Who was correct? I have lived my life into the answer – coming to understand that when I truly reside in a place, come to know my more-than-human neighbors, and am mindful each day of my place in the web of life, my home becomes a sacred place. My community has become the center of my life revolves around the order of things that sustain me in this place. As the circle shifts, so does the center... an ongoing dynamic as invisible circles are imagined into life everywhere on our planet.

It no longer matters to me whether or not I will ever be considered a native Mainer. I am of North America, I am of this land that gave birth to my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents and beyond. I too will become an ancestor in just a generation. What does matter to me is that those that come after me will have fresh water to drink, will have clean air to breathe, and will have soil and a climate that will support the growing of food. If I can leave this physical existence knowing that I have done my best to insure that legacy for future generations then I will have the due reward that I desire. I will have found my place in “the family of things” as poet Mary Oliver announces.


  1. this was such a pleasure to read Coleen ....Rich, thoughtful, eloquence ...I think it would be wonderful to hear, if you you wanted to read it aloud and share at a Coho meeting!