Bright Idea Friday

November 9, 2007 § 1 Comment

The biggest story in Maine this week was the defeat of a referendum that would have allowed the Passamaquoddy Indians to build a racino in Washington County.

Washington County is the easternmost county in Maine, and though the countryside and coastline are beautiful, parts of it are like the Third World. It’s home to just 34,000 people, but the county’s demographics are some of the most diverse in the state. Only (only!) 93% of the county’s population is Caucasian. Nearly 4.5% are Native American, with another 1.5% from two or more races. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Washington County is one of the poorest counties in America, with about 20% of its population subsisting below the poverty line. On the reservations, that figure doubles.

Some improvement in Washington County’s fortunes are already in the cards— there are plans for a 38-turbine wind farm in the works— but a racino would have meant a lot of things to the Passamaquoddy. It could have been their salvation, but this is the second time in two years that their proposal for a gambling operation has been put down by their neighbors who cite the drugs, gambling addiction, prostitutes and profiteers that come with such establishments. The Passamaquoddy, however blame racism for their defeat, and I doubt they’re completely mistaken.

But we all know that intolerance is bred by ignorance. When we can’t understand a culture or a tradition, we feel unease and fear. And when these baffling people try to build a gambling establishment in the middle of rural, picturesque Washington County, it might appear to some Mainers that in trying to preserve their identity, their way of life, the tribe is taking away someone else’s. And it might even appear to the casual observer that there’s nothing left in Passamaquoddy culture worth preserving. What’s visible to travelers passing through this part of Maine is poverty, desperation, defeat, and hopelessness.

Poverty, despair and defeat are not a traditional part of Passamaquoddy culture, of course, and hopelessness should not be their future. But without more money, there’s not much to look forward to on Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation. Although the tribe poured more than $700,000 into the campaign seems their future doesn’t rest on racino earnings. Maybe their future lies more in looking towards their past. It’s a model already put in place, right in New England.

When I was a kid, our big family vacation every year was a daytrip to Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. My mother organized the trip, and rented two buses (with chemical toilets!) to ferry 40 restless second-graders and their chaperones down the 495 for a day spent on the Mayflower II, in the historical recreation, and in the Wampanoag camp. I loved it, and saved money every year for treats int he gift shop.

But it always confused me that the Wampanoag in the “Indian Village” part of Plimoth never stayed in character the way the actors in the pilgrim village do. Sure, they often had little exhibits out— tanning deer hides or burning out a canoe, for example— but sometimes the people weren’t even in costume! They, I thought, weren’t putting in nearly as much effort as the people up the hill. They just sat in the smoky longhouse answering questions, speaking the same way they might if you passed them on a city street.

But when I visited again with Richard two Octobers ago and heard other visitors in the longhouse asking the same questions I’d heard asked when I was eight, I finally figured it out.

The questions, asked with absolute candor and curiosity, were things like: What’s the Indian word for ocean?

What’s the Indian word for ocean? Three hundred sixty years after the colonists landed, some Americans still don’t realize there’s no single Indian tongue? Sweet Christ, no wonder the Wampanoag don’t stay in character; it’s a wonder they can keep a civil tongues in their heads!

So why not build a vast network of Native village recreations all over the country, wherein each group could explain their nation’s similarities and differences to their neighbors, and generally paint a picture of pre-Columbian America? They could export their culture for profit, as people do all over Europe.

I’ll use the Passamaquoddy as an example here, but the model could be used all across the country. Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation, one of their two reservations in Washington County, consists of 43 square miles, 37 of which are land. Since a similar number of people live on the nearby Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation (.5 square miles), I’ll assume that at least a few acres of the land at Indian Township is undeveloped, and that’s where I’m building my imaginary living museum.

I imagine a visitors’ center in a bright woodland park. Nearby stand a group of eight or ten traditional structures housing a variety of demonstrations and exhibits, fires flickering in front of a few of them, and Passamaquoddy, some in traditional dress, some in modern clothing, staff the museum. One structure for dedicated to cooking traditional specialties. Another structure for storytelling, relating legends, myths, and poems; passing along a few words of Passamaquoddy, their ancestral tongue, because although more than four percent of Washington County’s residents belong to the tribe, just over 25% of them speak it at home. Maybe in another structure, an older member of the community could answer visitors’ questions and give details about the tribe’s historic dealings with settlers and the government, while next door another could demonstrate basket weaving or build traditional tools. The demonstrations could change with the seasons, much as they would have three or four centuries ago.

Like their neighbors, the Maliseet, Passamaquoddy were farmers, so a large garden growing native crops with technologies from the fourteenth, fifteenth, or sixteenth century would be in order, too, perhaps with a guided talk available about companion planting and the differences between Native American agriculture and the European models we use today.

“Passamaquoddy” actually means “pollock-spearers” in their ancestral tongue, so perhaps once or twice a day there could be expeditions to the river or coast for whoever would like to tag along and watch. And meandering through the woods, lots of interpretive panels. Perhaps tours of the forest begin every hour, with a guide to explain the uses her forebears found for blueberries, teaberry, dandelion root, and other medicinal plants, perhaps while detailing how the natural landscape shaped their mythology.

The possibilities are endless, since there were so very many distinct cultures across this continent, not to mention South America. Schools would flock to such living museums. They could become tourist destinations like Plimoth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, or Sturbridge Village, and a network of these across the country could only improve visibility and awareness of the deep, old, continuing grievances all Native Americans have with the US and Canadian governments.

Whatever racist or bigoted views people may have— subconscious or otherwise— being able to meet with the public and talk to people about all the injustices Native Americans face can only be a good thing. I firmly believe that when people truly understand one another, the hatred and intolerance that stems from ignorance never takes root. And when people are truly educated about an issue, they tend to be more compassionate.

And the money… Tourists love living history museums. Tickets for adults could run anywhere from $20 to $50. School groups from all over the Maine, New England and even New Brunswick would flock to the museum to watch the demonstrations and learn about the people who lived in their own neighborhoods for millennia before colonization. Maybe there’s a restaurant, and absolutely a gift shop. Perhaps there are even special outings a few times a year, weekend expedition for moose and deer in the Fall, or a Spring retreat for sowing the gardens.

Getting in touch with their roots in this way could only foster the pride Native Americans already have in their cultures, and pride begets respect. People who are proud of their accomplishments and respected by society tend to have more tools for dealing with problems like addiction and depression. And perhaps, if the tribes were well-respected business minds with a rich history that everyone knew, they’d be allowed, at last, to do what they want to with their own land.

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