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Maine tribes looking to purchase traditional lands for healing center

Members of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes are hoping a planned purchase of land along the Penobscot River is the first step in establishing a center for culture and healing in the state.

The 85-acre parcel, owned by Suffolk University, is in Passadumkeag and is the only available land access to Olamon Island, a historic and ceremonial gathering place for the Penobscot Nation, according to Tim Shay, president of the Wabanaki Cultural Preservation Commission.

The commission’s Nibezun Earth Project is working to raise the $677,000 that Suffolk University is asking for the parcel.

“Nibezun” is the Penobscot word for “medicine,” according to Shay.

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“We want to get this not just for the Wabanaki or just for Native Americans,” Shay said. “We want to open the doors to all the people in the surrounding area.”

There are some big plans for the property which, until 2008, was home to an equine therapy center.

“There are two major houses with a guest house, a three-bay garage and a 13,000-square-foot horse barn with a running arena you could play soccer in,” Shay said. “Millions [of dollars] were spent developing the place.”

The equine therapy program never really took off, Shay said, and in 2011, Suffolk University, which lists the property among its facilities on its website, took it over for off-campus environmental education classes.

“But that never took off, either,” Shay said. “Time went on, and over the years, a [Penobscot] tribal member has worked maintaining the property, [and] that was costing Suffolk University money every year.”

So Shay said he began talking to members of the Wabanaki cultural commission about the idea of purchasing the property.

“The facilities could act as a central location for the Wabanaki coalition in Maine,” Shay said. “We have a lot of [tribal] organizations in Maine that work with different areas within the Wabanaki community that could be centralized there.”

Existing offices and programs addressing health, employment, housing, the arts, language, business development, financing and youth programs could all be moved to the Nibezun Earth Center.

“I believe we can do this,” Shay said. “We can have all these organizations that have different niches come together so they can pool their resources and create a center to help our people and all people.”

High on the list of what Shay hopes such a center could do is help Maine’s indigenous population start to heal from the effects of 500 years of genocide.

“Anything that can be done to annihilate a people has been done to Native Americans,” Shay said. “But we are still here, the basics of our language is still here, and our history is definitely still here.”

Historical attacks on the country’s indigenous population have created a population with high rates of alcoholism, drug use, domestic violence, homicide and poverty, Shay said.

“Let’s face it, we have problems,” he said. “There is a 21st Century name for it — ‘intergenerational traumatic stress,’ [and] it is the result of this 500 years of genocide.”

Shay hopes the Nibezun center can do what he said government-funded aid programs have so far been unable to accomplish — break the cycles of poverty and substance abuse among native peoples with culturally-based solutions.

“Like someone in [the cultural coalition] said, ‘The culture is the medicine,’” Shay said. “We need to heal ourselves, [and] that is what Nibezun comes down to — the idea that the culture is going to heal us so the next generations won’t have to go through what we went through.”

In opening the center to all people, Shay said there also are plans for workshops devoted to sustainable housing, alternative energy, organic farming and natural medicines.

To get the word out, the group has taken to social media, started a GoFundMe site and is working with a local filmmaker to document the process in a series of short videos released online.

“I took part in a ceremony on the land earlier this summer,” Kate Kirby, director and producer with Kindred Planet Productions in Orono, said. “The spirit of what they are trying to do was really captured out there, and all of my plans and other projects went on the back burner so I could work on this.”

Her first video focuses on introducing the Nibezun Project and on the people involved. Successive videos — each about four minutes — will cover what is going with the land, what the project hopes to accomplish and establish its identity, she said.

“There are so many reasons why people should care about this project,” Kirby said. “Issues like water rights, protecting the environment and the socioeconomics of it all affect all of us.”

She said she is honored to be telling the story through film.

“We have a history in our country of not making space for the native populations their wisdom, their stories and their experience,” Kirby said. “I am so glad to be part of a movement that is capturing that.”

Shay said the Wabanaki Cultural Preservation Commission is actively raising funds for the purchase in time for an Oct. 10 purchase deadline set by Suffolk University.

They are about halfway there, but he said an organization has stepped forward to offer a three-year loan to immediately cover the purchase.

“We feel pretty good about our chances to get the land,” Shay said. “It’s pretty exciting, but pretty nerve wracking, too.”


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