Before I came to Chewonki, the fact only fact I was sure of was that I was going into a new, unfamiliar environment. One experience which became one of my first week highlights was listening to our Friday night speaker, James Francis. James is a historian from the local Penobscot nation and came to teach us about his tribe’s culture and how the beautiful coast of Maine was shaped by Native American culture.
I have to admit, when we were told we were having a Friday night speaker, I wasn’t super pumped because I thought it was going to be an impersonal lecture that would go on forever with no end. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When James started to speak his stories and knowledge of local culture captivated me. He talked about how the rivers of the region are all from Native American words and told us the stories behind local landmarks like Moosehead Lake and Mount Katahdin. He went into detail about his grandmother and mother would make baskets. It all felt so different from what I have ever heard before, because he told his stories through an ancestral lens, allowing the entire room to connect and understand the complexity of Penobscot life.
I was quickly swept up James’ stories of his childhood and the history and inventions of his ancestors. He had brought a large hand built canoe along with a fishing spear with some modern tweaks. The canoe was lightweight and had a notch on a pole supporting the sides of the canoe, both helpful for when the canoes have to be picked up and carried long distances. The Penobscots had also fashioned a new type of fish spear that would prevent the fish from slipping off with two pieces of wood. I found it so interesting how they were able to create and thrive with such ingenious inventions made with simple materials found all around them. I left that night more appreciative of the land around me. I am living in a place with a long and complex history, and I feet proud to begin to know those stories and share them with my new friends and faculty.
I appreciate how Chewonki strives to show us the deeper personal side of history and the land. Before coming here I didn’t get why everyone cared so deeply about sharing our life stories or perspectives. After being here for more than two weeks, I now understand that by sharing stories we are able to learn about hard and complex issues and stories in different perspectives, helping each semester student to grow and define our own.
Autumn, Moses Brown School, Seekonk, MA
James Eric Francis Sr. is the Penobscot Nation’s Tribal Historian, Director of Cultural and Historic Preservation, and a scholar of Thoreau and his Penobscot Guides, Joseph Attean and Joe Polis.