Continuing to Evolve
Continuing to Evolve
Last week I wrote commending Robin Zinchuk, director of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, for taking the first step in having our Mollyockett Days celebration integrate Maine’s indigenous culture. This was a wonderful and positive step, and we still have a ways to go.
As I was standing with the former Chief of the Penobscot nation, Barry Dana, we watched Miss Mollyockett drive by in her native costume. But what was really hard to witness was the float that attempted to celebrate the theme of “The Arts and Traditions of Mollyockett.” On it we saw stereotypical Indians in war paint, a representation of a teepee (which belongs to plains Indians not Wabanaki), war whoops and hollering and a general characterization of Wabanaki people that was a disrespectful and inaccurate caricature.
We have all grown up accustomed to stereotyping “Indians,” perhaps as a way for white people to deal with our buried guilt about our horrific treatment of indigenous peoples. It is so commonplace that we don’t even recognize it. Just because something has been normalized in our experience, doesn’t make it right. I also know some of the young people on the float and realize they are thespians, appearing in local plays in the past. This for them might have been another “role.” I could only apologize to Barry Dana and explain it was an attempt to illustrate the time of Mollyockett. This is the float that won first place.
What is also unfortunate is that the float that most represented Mollyockett’s spirit was not the one that won. The Alliance Church’s float portrayed the time Mollyockett was refused a seat in the pew of a local church. She came back with a tree stump and placed it near the altar and sat down on it to not miss a word of the sermon. To me this story honors this courageous native woman, a woman this community has not forgotten in nearly 200 years.
Perhaps the best way for non-native people to understand the inappropriateness of the winning float would be for us to imagine a float about black Americans, with young people dressed up in black face, eating watermelon, dancing and playing the banjo. We would understand immediately that this would be a disgraceful and gross caricature of a far more complex, diverse and talented people.
The fish don’t know they are swimming in the ocean and white Americans don’t realize the amount of privilege we have and have taken for granted. Instead of feeling guilty about that, we can educate ourselves on our true history with native people and be sensitive to how we would feel if we had come to the brink of extinction, had our children taken away from us in vast numbers, had not been allowed to vote until 1954, and wound up the most socio-economically deprived and distressed community on this continent – a continent that was theirs in the first place.