Losing and Finding My Bearings

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 5, 2021

Sometimes when we’re confused, we say “let me just get my bearings, here.”  I may have just woken up from a nap.  Or I may have stumbled on a walk.  Maybe I’ve hit my head on a rafter in the basement and that’s left me woozy.  Everything seems odd; I’m disoriented or muddled.  So I say, “Let me just get my bearings, here.” 

Once I woke up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room.  I’d been traveling a good deal, changing time zones, and sleeping in unfamiliar hotels.  When I work in the dark that night I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing.  But even worse, I couldn’t quite think who I was.  That was confusing and more than a little frightening. 

In those moments when I’m confused, I search for something fixed and clear that tells us who we are or what we’re doing or where we’re going.  It might be a familiar landmark that helps me get my bearings.  It might be any number of things, but it’s something I can grasp hold of that helps us get our bearings.  It needs to be something fixed, something sturdy – hopefully so fixed its permanent. 

That awful night in a strange hotel room, it was only when I tripped over my briefcase that I’d left on the floor of the room that it all came back to me.  I got my bearings.  Suddenly it all came back to me.  Once again I knew who I was and what I was doing there.  The briefcase wasn’t particularly fixed.  I kicked it a few feet when I tripped over it, but there was a familiar object filled with familiar things that put me right again in the world and in my mind.  But often, familiar things aren’t where we should look to find our bearings. 

“Let me just get my bearings, here.”  It’s an unusual phrase.  It comes from navigation, especially from navigating at sea when there were no landmarks in view and before there was GPS or anything like it.  It comes from using the stars or a compass to find your way.  Hopefully you have a map (or something like a map) that shows where you’re going, and the map shows which way is north.  You use a compass to help you know which compass direction to steer to take you where you want to go.  That direction is your bearing.  It’s the number of degrees away from due north you want to head.  If a wave (or something) knocks you off course, you use the compass to get back on your bearings. 

This phrase, this idea, is on my mind because we’re living in crazy-making times.  Every morning there is a fresh load of things on the news that sound crazy to me.  They sound like people have lost their way. 

Most obviously, there’s a pandemic that’s killing millions.  We have a vaccine that protects against it and is almost sure to prevent serious illness.  But some people won’t take it.  That seems crazy to me.  I can only imagine those people have lost their bearings. 

Talk of conspiracies abound.  I’m not eager to wander into politics here today, but if you read the news at all, I think you know what I mean. 

It feels like a lot of people have lost their bearings.  They’re confused, or muddled – or afraid, and they’re looking for something that helps them get their bearings back.  They’re looking for something to grab hold of, something sturdy and solid, that helps them get their bearings. 

Where do they look for something to get their bearings?  That’s really what I want to talk about today. 

Some people try to find their bearings at work.  Their work has meaning for them and they try to do it well.  When they can’t find work, or when their work seems pointless or degrading, it can feel like they’ve lost their bearings.  Other people try to find their bearings in their family – in the relationships that connect people to one another.  When those relationships don’t work or break down, or when they take a shape they hadn’t expected – had never imagined – that, too can feel like they’ve lost their bearings.

And some people try to find their bearings in traditions.  They want things to be just like they were when they were growing up, or the way they were for their parents or their grandparents.  Change is hard.  And when comes, as it always does, people feel like they’ve lost their bearings. Maybe they are looking for their bearings in the wrong place. 

Jesus’s parents lived in crazy-making times.  The Romans had conquered Judea in 63 BC, not long before they were born.  Suddenly the Jews were no longer an independent people.  Their king was not really their king.  Jesus was born into a world at a time and in a place where many people had lost their bearings. 

Where should we look for our bearings?  That’s really what I want to talk about today. 

Think about the “three wise men” who have a starring role in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus.  Who were these “wise men?” Who were these men who felt compelled to follow a star – something that itself seems a little crazy.  But it felt right to them – and it was right.  Who were these guys?

We generally call them Kings, or the Magi. (“Magi” is from the same root as the word “magic.”)  It’s a word from the Persian language and that’s where we think these Magi came from. I’ve been reading a new translation of the Gospels, this one by Sarah Ruden, a Classics scholar who has been drawn to worship among Friends.  Here’s how she translates the verses in Matthew 2:

When Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, look, diviners from where the sun rises appeared at Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the King of the Jews who has been born? We did see his star at its rising and have come to prostrate ourselves before him.”

“Diviners” is how she translates the word.  What makes these men “wise” is that they took their bearings from the stars.  They took them from something much more fixed and solid than work or family or tradition.  These three were skilled at reading the stars, and they saw in the stars the signs of divine things. 

“Diviners.”  They were not Jews and of course they were not Christians (Jesus was just about to be born).  They were probably Zoroastrian priests, but they took their bearings from the stars and that led them – compelled them – to come a long distance to worship a baby they’d never me – whose parents they’d never met.  They took their bearings from the stars – from divine things.  And the Ruden translation says:

 “When they saw the star there, their joy was heaped on joy, in great abundance.”

It wasn’t dizziness they felt.  It wasn’t confusion.   It’s because they took their bearings from divine things, not from earthly things, that this strange long journey they took filled them with joy. 

It’s easy to get caught up in earthly things.  It’s easy to try to find our bearings in those earthly things.  But those earthly things – work and family and tradition – are unlikely to give us a long-lasting and joy-filling sense of who we are and what’s right to do.

Those Diviners followed a star.  They followed it to Jesus at the point of his birth.  And his birth can point us towards a way of finding our bearings. 

That’s why we celebrate Christmas.  That’s why we find an abundance of joy in Christmas. 

How do we find our bearings in divine things?  That’s why Christmas is only the beginning of the story.   There’s a long road to travel to find our bearings, but we have to look to divine things to travel that road. 

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website

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Winslow Homer, The Blue Boat, 1892

Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston); image from Wikimedia Commons

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War and Foolishness

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 19, 2021

War is what’s on my mind and in my heart today – and foolishness, too.  War and foolishness because war, I believe, is one of the most profound forms of human foolishness, and tragic, too.  War and foolishness have been on my mind because of the recent end of the war in Afghanistan and also because of the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the subsequent launch of the ‘war on terror.’  Hundreds of thousands of lives lost – who knows how many? – and trillions of dollars spent badly. 

In October of 2012 –I jotted down the following list of things that are likely to happen in a war – things that are likely to happen beyond soldiers being killed or wounded.  I don’t remember what led me to write down this list.  This was nine years ago, and eleven years after 9/11.  Most U.S. troops had left Iraq a year earlier, and U.S. troops would still be in Afghanistan for almost a decade longer.  So I don’t remember why I jotted down this list.  We were very much in the middle of a never-ending war, as we always seem to be. 

  • Young lives will be ruined.  The survivors will wake with terrible memories. 
  • Civilians will be killed.
  • The costs will be much, much higher than anticipated.
  • Unspeakable acts will be committed, some by us.
  • Civil liberties at home will be trampled.
  • There will be secrecy and lies that undermine democracy.
  • We will worsen our relations with some otherwise uninvolved friends and serve the purposes of some opportunistic bad actors.
  • We will create massive, distant wreckage that we will not want to repair.
  • We will entangle ourselves in ways that will make it hard for us to disengage.
  • We will set in motion an unfolding humanitarian crisis that will last for years: refugees, divided families, deprivation and the like. 
  • We will sow the seeds of future conflict. 
  • We will fail to learn lessons of peacebuilding because we won’t have tried it, again. 

All these things happened in Afghanistan.  All these things happened in Iraq.  And they happened in Syria and Lebanon and Libya, too – and not only in those places.  It would be foolish to go to war and not expect that most of the bad things will happen.  Those who support wars should have their eyes wide open and their hearts hardened in anticipation of these tragedies. 

I’ve opposed this sequence of wars.  When I’ve written my Senators or written a letter to the editor, I’ve talked about these terrible things that are likely to happen and urged them to oppose these wars.  I’ve mostly written about things on this list. 

Let’s call the items on this list the prudential arguments against war.  War won’t get us where we want to get to.  It won’t bring peace; it will bring further war.  It will not bring understanding; it will bring mistrust and hatred.  War today will bring war tomorrow.  You’d have to be foolish to expect anything else.  We have abundant recent evidence. 

But these prudential reasons for being against war aren’t really why I’m against war.  These prudential reasons are important – very important – but deep down I know I am against war because I am a foolish person – foolish in a very different way. 

I’m a different kind of foolish person because I’m a pacifist. 

I became a pacifist in the late 1960s during another war, the one in Vietnam.  (All those bad things on the list happened then, too; they always do.)  I became a pacifist before I became a Quaker.  It was in understanding why pacifism made sense, even though it was foolishness, that I found my way to Quakerism.

Why is pacifism a kind of foolishness?  Do you even need to ask?  Tell someone you are a pacifist and they look at you with utter dismay and incredulity.  Voiced or unvoiced you hear a torrent of questions.  Would you have let the Nazis win?  If someone attacked your mother, wouldn’t you try to stop the attacker?  If they attacked your wife? Your children?  Would you really not raise a hand to stop an aggressor? 

It’s unfathomable; people can’t believe you’re serious; as soon as you say you’re a pacifist they know you are a fool. 

You certainly put yourself beyond the boundaries of reasoned argument.  You can no longer have any standing whatsoever in discussions of foreign policy.  There is no point in writing your Senator and telling her she should oppose a war because you’re a pacifist.  That letter will carry no weight.  When you say you’re a pacifist you put yourself out of bounds – beyond the pale.  Only ‘serious people’ get to participate in the decisions about going to war – and no ‘serious person’ is a pacifist.

I understand being a pacifist is foolishness.  It’s a very, very different kind of foolishness from the foolishness of thinking that war won’t bring those twelve terrible things I listed before.  You have to choose which kind of foolishness is yours:  believing that war will work, or believing that one door to a different, better world (the “beloved community”) is marked “I will not go to war.”  Let’s call the pacifist argument against war the transformational argument against war.  It’s an argument deeply grounded in Jesus’s argument to love your neighbor as yourself. 

“What if everyone acted like you did?”  That’s one of the torrent of questions you provoke if you declare for pacifism.  And that one question is easy to answer:  You can say, that would be wonderful.  You have to believe – you should believe – that everyone can and should make the same choice, the choice to say no to war.  Not just your family and friends, not just your fellow citizens, but everyone would make the same choice. 

Pacifism is a kind of foolishness that begins by saying I am not going to accept that what has happened over and over again is the only possibility. 

“I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”  That’s from George Fox, of course.  He’s saying, I took myself out of this world and put myself in a different world.  And, he might well have added, I’m not coming back. 

Join me in the that new world, Fox is saying.  Sign up for the foolishness that says there are new possibilities.  We can do this together.  We can choose to love one another.  We can put ourselves into an understanding that each and every one of us is a child of God, capable of giving and receiving love.  But each of us has to begin by making the individual choice to say no to war.  Each of us needs to make a solid commitment to the way of love, not a tentative or half-hearted, ‘but you go first’ one. 

Yes, that’s foolishness.  It is a rare and wonderful kind of foolishness.  Here’s a statement from British Friends in 1920 – that is, just after the end of another horrible war – in which all those terrible things happened. 

“When the early Friends said that the ‘Spirit of Christ would never move them to fight and war against any man with outward weapons!’ they not only testified that war was wrong, but they also indicated that there was a new and right way of dealing with men consonant with Love, and certain to be attended by a success far greater than had ever been attained by war. Instead of destroying or suppressing the evil-doers, the new method would transform them into children of light. These early Friends were come ‘into the Covenant of Peace which was before wars and strifes were’ and by their lives lived in the power of the light they were helping others to enter that same covenant.”

Or as A. J. Muste once put it, “there is no way to peace; peace is the way.”

Yes, pacifism is foolishness by the world’s lights, but it is, I believe, a far, far better foolishness than the endless alternative of war. 

So here is the choice, a choice between two kinds of foolishness.  Do you choose the foolishness of war and its terrible train of tragedies, or the foolishness of a new life lived in love?

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website.

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Piscataquis River at Low’s Bridge, November 2020

Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / Bangor Daily News

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Flowing Water

From FlowingData

Map shows you where a raindrop ends up

May 25, 2021

Topic

Maps  /  rainSam Learnerwater

River Runner is a fun interactive map by Sam Learner. Click anywhere in the contiguous United States to drop some rain and, based on data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the map shows you where the rain ends up and the path it takes to get there.

This uses USGS NHDPlus data and their NLDI API to visualize the path of a rain droplet from any point in the contiguous United States to its end point (usually the ocean, sometimes the Great Lakes, Canada/Mexico, or another inland water feature). It’ll find the closest river/stream flowline coordinate to a click/search and then animate along that flowline’s downstream path.

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Androscoggin River ice melting as it moves through Lisbon, Maine

From the Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine

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The Quaker Testimony of Equality

Message given at First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, March 7, 2021 and at Durham Friends Meeting, May 16, 2021

It is equality that is on my mind this morning.  Equality is something that has been on my mind more or less steadily for many months.  Through this period of MeToo and Black Lives Matter.  Through dismay about voter suppression and gerrymandering.  Through worries about equitable health care during the pandemic. Through concerns about the death penalty, about police practices, about quality schooling for all children.  Equality is the concern that runs through all of these and much more. 

I’ve recently finished teaching a course on the Founding and Refounding of the United States. I teach now in a senior college in Maine, a setting in which people of a certain age teach others of a certain age.  The course has been about the founding moments and principles of the United States.  Should we think of the founding as 1776 or 1787? 1620 or 1619?  1865 or perhaps 1492?  Equality has been very much on the minds of all of who participated in the course.  “All men are created equal,” are words that ring down through our history, but the words come from a document that makes no mention of slavery, a document that refers to indigenous persons as “merciless savages” — hardly words we’d use for those we regard as our equals. 

In this course we’ve reminded ourselves that the 1776 declaration of equality was a relatively new note in human history.  You can find important statements of equality from around 1650, but you can’t really find such statements before that year.  Even if the 1776 declaration only embraced property-holding white men when it was first proclaimed, this was a striking departure from anything that might have been said in centuries earlier. 

The new note of equality was striking.  So, too, of course, are the blind spots (if I can call them that) with which we have suffered: the denials of equality to indigenous people, to people of color, to women.  250 years on, we still have the proclamation, and we are still dealing with those blind spots and denials.  The promised equality still has a powerful hold on us.

About now you may be wondering whether this is a message for as First Day at a Quaker Meeting, or whether you’ve stumbled instead into a civics classroom or a political science course, but bear with me.

When I first began teaching at Temple University almost a half century ago, every semester I’d teach an introductory course in political philosophy.  We’d begin with Plato and Aristotle and march forward in time toward the 20th century.  I wanted my students to understand that no one of these great philosophers believed in equality – not one of them – until we got to around 1650.  When we got to that point in the course, I’d ask my students why they believed in equality.  After all, isn’t it clear we are not equal one to another?  Some of us taller, some shorter; some smarter, some less so; some braver, some timid.  They all believed in equality, but they had difficulty saying why.  Almost every semester it was a young woman, a graduate of a Catholic high school who had rarely before spoken in class who would, well into the discussion, raise her hand, hesitantly, and say ‘does it have something to do with our being children of God?’  ‘Does it have something to do with our being loved equally, each and every one of us, by God?’

Well I think it does, I’d tell her.  The belief in equality, the commitment to equality we all hold, doesn’t arise until there is a great turn in Christianity.  A straightforward reading of the Bible – both testaments – has very little in it to support equality.  On the contrary.  Through and through, a plain reading of the Bible supports many kinds of inequality.  There are passages that privilege men over women, passages that support slavery, passages that support special, privileged statuses (kings, judges).  And down through the centuries rings a phrase from Romans 13 that is used to justify inequality, “the powers that be are ordained of God.”

It is with the Reformation that we get the first stirrings of equality.  People begin saying, the Bible is for each and every one of us to read.  And people saying, we do not need priests or saints to have a relationship with God.  Those ideas first have religious consequence, but they come to have dramatic social and political consequences, too.  People begin seeing new possibilities in the Bible, deeper possibilities, including equality.  The verse from Colossians takes on deeper meaning: “there is no Gentile or Jew…”

Quakers are very much part of these new stirrings, and they (or do I mean we?) came to the new ideas about equality about as early as anyone.  From our beginnings, Quakers have had a strong resonance with equality.  When we think of our testimonies, today we recite the mnemonic ‘SPICES:’ simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship.  There it is, Equality. 

When we tell our history, we love to remember that Quakers were very early in affirming the ministry of women.  Quakers were active in the struggle to abolish slavery.  Quakers have been active in efforts to accord full respect and recognition to indigenous people.  And now, as we tell these stories, we take more care to remember that Quakers have fallen far short of all that we would hope in these struggles.  Quaker schools may have been earlier than others to admit students of color, but for long periods we did not admit students of color.  Some Quakers were slaveholders.  And so forth.  The story of Quakers and equality is a complicated one, we now recognize.  Still, Quakers were among the earliest to proclaim equality, to practice equality.

And why is that?  Why do Quakers believe in equality?  We remind ourselves of our history more than we remind ourselves why we believe in equality.  Maybe we’ve come to think it’s obvious, but it isn’t.  So how does God loving each of us lead to a belief in equality? 

One way we can look at this is to say ‘sure, there are lots of differences among human beings, some are cleverer, some less clever, but, from the standpoint of God’s view of humans, those differences don’t amount to anything at all.  The majesty of God is humbling.  The glory and steadfastness of God’s love sweeps the differences away.  We should be ashamed to put any importance on the differences.  We should take one another as equals because God does.  God loves us all equally. 

That’s one way to think about it, but I think there’s more.  When we speak of God’s love, we Quakers speak of ‘the Light’.  We know it’s a metaphor, a way of speaking about something profound and ultimately beyond our comprehension: God’s presence in the world.  This is a presence that brings truth and rightness and love into the world.  We speak of holding one another ‘in the Light.’ 

We also speak of ‘the Light within’.  And by this we Quakers mean to convey that God’s presence isn’t just all around us but also that God’s presence is within us — within each of us.  That presence, that ‘Light within’, can be ignored; our worldly selves can turn away from it and we often do.  But it is always there, always available, always waiting for us to turn toward God’s Grace. 

If God’s presence, God’s love, is within each of us, and within us equally, that is an even more substantial ground of equality.  It’s not just that the superficial differences among us don’t matter.  It’s also that the most important aspect of all of us, the presence of God within, is equally within each of us. 

And here’s the more.  If God’s love, God’s Light is within us, then we are connected through it.  We share it.  It makes it possible for us to know one another.  We can feel one another’s despair.  We can share dreams with one another.  We can understand one another – or at least there is that possibility.  Seeing equality as grounded in the Light within also lays the foundation for our joining together to build the beloved community.   

Something like this, I believe, is the foundation of the Quaker testimony of equality.  God’s presence is all around us and also within us.  God’s love flows to all of us equally and that should matter more to us (because it matters more to God) than any superficial or human-scale differences. 

Maybe there are solid secular foundations for a belief in equality, but for me they don’t begin to have the power and the glory that this Quaker account has.  It isn’t only a Quaker way of looking at things, but we have an early claim on this understanding. 

I remember – and probably many of you remember, discussions of equality in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement.  The most important voices I remember were religious voices:  Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, C. T. Vivian, Hosea Williams, Howard Thurman and many more. 

As I listen to discussions of equality today, passionate expressions of equality, I hear fewer religious voices.  I don’t hear as much a belief in equality that is grounded in God’s love for each and every one of us.  I worry that the foundation of equality isn’t as substantial.  I worry that the ground of equality has become weaker because it has become more secular. 

Search yourself: doesn’t your commitment to equality rest upon a religious ground? 

And doesn’t it connect you in the most powerful ways to all others?  The basis of our commitment to equality, I believe, shouldn’t lead us to emphasize differences among us.  It should lead us to emphasize the commonalties and connections among us.  Doesn’t equality promise the possibility of mutual understanding, of beloved community and of peace?

Posted in Message, Quaker Testimonies | 1 Comment

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” By Langston Hughes

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

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We Worship on Land That Is a Homeland for the Wabanaki

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, January 17, 2021

“We worship on land that Is a homeland for the Wabanaki.”  We say those words each Sunday when we gather.  I want to say something more about that today.  I want to tell a fuller version of the story.

 “In the last of the eighteenth century when the present town of Durham went by the name of Royalsborough and was part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we find the record of the coming of several Quakers from Harpswell among whom were Lemuel Jones, Joseph and Caleb Estes, Andrew Pinkham and Elijah Douglas.  They were soon followed by Samuel Collins of Weare, New Hampshire and Robert and Silas Goddard from Falmouth.  Many of these names have a familiar sound in our ears and many people here present could trace their lineal descent from these founders of our meeting.” 

Those are the opening sentences of Hattie Cox’s history of Durham Friends Meeting that she wrote and presented in 1929 on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of our current brick Meetinghouse.  These Friends held their first Meeting in the home of Joseph Estes in 1775.

Told that way this is a story that sounds like it starts at the very beginning, the story of the gathering here of a group of Quakers for worship together, a gathering for worship that continues to this day.  But we should realize there is another story that the Hattie Cox version jumps over.  It is a story we should also know and remember.  

What went before are the thousands of years of indigenous peoples living in the Androscoggin River valley — and up and down the Atlantic Coast and across the Americas.  The coming of the Quakers and others of European descent tore apart the communities of these indigenous peoples.  It’s that longer story, the story of peoples on this land, that I want to tell today.  It’s an unhappy story in many ways.  It is a story of disease, disruption and dispossession. 

In their own telling, the indigenous peoples of New England and the Maritime Provinces (as we call them today), were placed here at the beginning of time by Glooskap, a trickster god who still watches over these peoples.  The way of knowing we call archeology tells us that indigenous peoples filtered north into Maine following the retreating glacier, the last glacier to cover this terrain, about 12,000 or 13,000 years ago. 

When European explorers and fishermen first intruded, the indigenous people they encountered numbered, perhaps, 20,000 people in what is now what we call Maine. 

These people lived in villages and encampments.  They followed the seasons harvesting the fruits of the forest, the rivers and the sea when and where these were most abundant.  They grew corn and some other vegetables.  They were a mobile people moving often across the land in a rhythm with the changing seasons. 

They travelled by waterways using birchbark canoes.  The rivers were their highways.  They had ‘carrying places’ where they portaged between streams or around waterfalls.  They lived in wigwams or teepees and long houses that could be moved seasonally.   

On the Androscoggin, there was a large year-round village at Canton Point near the town we call Livermore Falls.  On the Kennebec there was a village on Swan Island and a larger village at Norridgewock, near the town we call Skowhegan.  When the fish ran in the rivers, the alewives and salmon, they camped near the falls, like the ones at Brunswick/Topsham and at Lewiston/Auburn. 

The Indigenous people who lived in what is now Maine were all part of a broad grouping of Eastern Algonquian people.  Those who lived in southern and mid-coast Maine we now call Eastern Abenaki.  We can call the people who lived in the Androscoggin Valley the Arosaguntacook.  (That’s a name from which the word Androscoggin was probably derived.  In their language it means “rocky flats flow” or “a river of rocks refuge.”)  Later, in the 1680s, they joined together with other indigenous people in what is now Maine and the Maritimes to form the Wabanaki Confederacy, a word with the same language root as Abenaki.  It is a word root that means Land of the Dawn.  They were the first people on this continent, the world they knew, to see the dawn each new day

What became of these people when Europeans intruded? Again, this is a story of disease, disruption and dispossession. 

Disease.  Many of us have an image in our heads of armed conflict or warfare between these indigenous peoples and the European settlers.  And there was such conflict, but there is a different and deadlier image we should put earlier than that.  From the moment of first contact, the indigenous peoples were exposed to diseases carried by the Europeans, diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, plague, chickenpox, measles, cholera, syphilis, typhoid and typhus.  Those diseases proved enormously deadly to indigenous peoples because they had no immunity to these diseases whatsoever. 

Perhaps 75% of the population died in the first decades after contact – that is, in the early 1600s.  These epidemics had their most deadly effect before there were colonial settlements.  The mere intrusion of Europeans — fishermen or trappers — set off epidemics.  The years from 1616 to 1619 – that is, before the Mayflower — are spoken of as ‘the Great Dying’ because in those years, especially in Massachusetts, the deaths were so numerous.  Whole villages were wiped out.  The arrival of Europeans was lethal to the indigenous people already living here. 

The diseases did not just kill people, they also tore apart their ways of living.  It deprived them of able-bodied people. It wiped out their leaders.  It weakened their confidence in themselves, in those they trusted, and in what they knew. 

Disruption.  The diseases that the Europeans carried were one kind of disruption, and there were others.  The European intruders brought goods with them that the indigenous people did not know.  They brought metal goods useful for cooking and for hunting.  They drew the indigenous peoples into trading relationships – for beaver pelts, for example.  The Abenaki began to hunt not just for their own use but to trade with the Europeans.  These new relationships began to change their way of life. 

The Europeans also settled themselves on the land in ways that disrupted the more mobile ways of the indigenous peoples.  English intruders built a fort at the lowest falls on the Androscoggin, where the building we know as Fort Andross now stands.  It was a wooden fort then, but it was a powerful indication that the intruders meant to dominate that site, make it their own.  The intruders fished at the falls not just for their own subsistence, but to send salted fish back to Europe for trade and profit.  The Abenaki were pushed out. 

These were uneasy times.  There were insults and thefts, kidnappings and killings.  At times the two groups, the intruders and the Abenaki, managed to live near one another without much conflict.  But after several decades of the Abenaki trying to live with the European intruders there came to be full-scale war between them.  Beginning about 1675 (that’s about 100 years after the first intruders) and lasting for about another hundred years, there was war in this part of Maine that involved the Abenaki.  These wars go today by a series of names of our making: King Phillip’s War, King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, Dummer’s War, the French and Indian Wars.  They involved the French as well as the English intruders:  these wars were part and parcel of a long struggle between the English and the French for domination of these lands, and each found allies among the indigenous peoples. 

In the early stages of these wars, the English settlers were largely driven out.  But when these wars were concluded, in the 1760s, it was the Abenaki had been driven out of southern and mid-coast Maine.  They had been driven inland, north and east – scattered and decimated. 

Today, the eastern Abenaki are not a group that is recognized as having continuing existence by the U.S. federal government.  They are a recognized group by the Canadian government in a settlement on the St. Lawrence River in present day Quebec.  And, of course, some Abenaki live among us, drawn to living more like we do, but also holding as they can to their long-established ways. 

Hattie Cox’s history of this Meeting starts where those wars end.  With the Abenaki largely pushed out of southern and mid-coast Maine, the land was open to settlement by European newcomers.  Among those newcomers were the original members of this Quaker Meeting.  In these parts, the wars ended in the mid-1760s, and this Meeting began just a few years later, in 1775. 

Dispossession.  What became of their land?  There were treaties by which the intruders took possession of large tracts of land.  We know those treaties were seen differently by the indigenous people and the intruders.  The Abenaki and other indigenous people did not think of land ownership the way we do.  And, of course, most of these treaties were not respected – especially not respected by the intruders.  Promises were not kept. 

The history of land titles in our part of what we now call Maine is full of disagreement and ambiguity and quite complex.  But we can say that most of the land we on which we live, work and play, those of us who are members of Durham Friends Meeting, were legally secured by Richard Wharton in 1684, in a deal with six members of the Abenaki that Wharton, at least, considered ‘Sagamores’ or leaders.  Whether the Arosaguntacook (the Abenaki in this Androscoggin valley) saw these six as leaders with powers to trade away their land is very much open to doubt.  But we can say that this Wharton Deed (it’s also called the Warumbo Deed after one of the Sagamores) contains this provision: 

“Provided Nevertheless yt nothing in this Deed be Construed to deprive us ye Saggamores Successessors [?] or People from Improving our Ancient Planting grounds nor from Hunting In any of s’d Lands Comgo [?] not Inclosed nor from fishing or fowling for our own Provission Soe Long as noe Damage Shall be to ye English fisherys,”

I believe every current deed of land within the bounds of this Wharton Deed derives from the deal that was struck that day.  (That’s pretty much all the land lived upon by every one of us gathered here today.)  And we should remember that in their understanding the Abenaki never after gave up that crucial legal proviso:  to have use of the land for planting, fishing and fowling for their own provision.   But as the intruders crowded in, the Abenaki were dispossessed.  The animals were driven out, their habitat destroyed.  Forests were cut and the rivers were poisoned.  The land was fenced in and built upon.  Roadways replaced waterways.  These lands were no longer ones familiar to the Abenaki.  The lands no longer sustained their way of life. 

Something like this is what we mean when we say that ‘we gather on land that is a homeland for the Wabanaki.’ 

Perhaps we can remember they had a life here. 

Perhaps we can remember that some still live among us. 

++++

Here are some resources for better understanding of the Wabanaki on the Durham Friends Meeting website. 

You can see a copy and a transcript of the 1684 Wharton Deed on the Maine Historical Society’s Maine Memory Network. 

Cross-posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website.

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Dean Cornwell, Androscoggin River Falls, 1960

A depiction of the Great Falls at what is now Lewiston-Auburn, about 1695.

Dean Cornwell (American, 1892-1960)
Androscoggin River Falls, study for The Manufacturers National Bank of Lewiston-Auburn, Maine mural, 1960
Pastel and pencil on grey paper
30 x 54-1/2 inches (76.2 x 138.4 cm) (sheet)
Signed and inscribed on accompanying label: Dean Cornwell / 33. W 67th St / This is one of 9 entries I am submitting / Mural Cartoon

PROVENANCE:
The artist;
Kirkham Cornwell, son of the above, by descent;
Private collection, Illinois.

LITERATURE:
Lewiston Evening Journal, April 2, 1960, p. 8., completed mural illustrated;
P. J. Broder, Dean Cornwell: Dean of Illustrators, New York, 1978, p. 131, completed mural illustrated.

On the artist’s label that accompanies this lot, Dean Cornwell states that this “mural cartoon” is one of nine that he submitted to the Manufacturers National Bank of Lewiston, Maine. Of these nine, the bank chose two including the present work. According to The Manufacturers National Bank pamphlet titled “About our Murals” that accompanies this piece, the work depicts “the symbolic great Falls of the Androscoggin River about 1695 … the original source of water power for this area from which our industrial progress has been made possible. Observe how the Angroscoggins (for Anasagunicooks), an Indian Tribe of this community belonging to the powerful Abnaki Nation, spear their Maine salmon from thundering, cool clear waters. Indians from miles away fished and hunted this plentiful region and nearby the great Indian Sagamores, Warumbee, maintained his permanent village and fort. What is now Lewiston and Auburn was an important crossroads … a center from which vital trails led to other sections of the settled country. Note how these native hunters replenish their food supply before the long journey onward, and barter with the Canadian Trader who carries such a tempting meal on his gun.”

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