- Rethinking Recognition: Mi’kmaq and Maliseet Poets Re-Write Land and Community
Land and community are two ongoing concerns of contemporary Native American literature and literary criticism, and with good reason; if indigenous writing and theory are to remain genuinely useful to indigenous people, they must stay grounded in these two fundamental pillars of tribal culture. At the same time, given that many Native people do not live on reservations or in their traditional homelands and many individuals have unacknowledged or somehow contentious status in their tribes, we might consider how those experiences speak to indigenous territories and group identities and how they inform new indigenous writing.
This essay looks to new Mi’kmaq and Maliseet poets to see how recognition affects Native peoples’ self-representation.1 By recognition, I mean the formal, colonial governmental processes that acknowledge indigenous territories, identities, and self-governance. In the United States, beginning in the early 1970s, Mi’kmaqs and Maliseets were among the many tribes vigorously pursuing federal recognition. The Maliseets won recognition under the 1980 Maine Indian Settlement Claims Act (MISCA), along with the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies. The Mi’kmaqs did not receive recognition until 1991, even though they worked closely with the Maliseets on this goal.
In Maine as elsewhere, recognition has produced mixed results. On the plus side, it has enabled tribes to buy back small parts of their traditional land bases. It has opened the door to resources that are supposed to be guaranteed to Native people as restitution for those lands, especially improved housing, health services, and education. Furthermore, recognition signifies a formal, government-to-government relationship between tribes and the US, which has arguably helped bring some tribes a good deal of positive visibility and power.
On the negative side, MISCA disrupted some communities and alliances and in some cases even took away hard-won benefits. Some Maine Indians were against the settlement act from the outset. Others find today that it has actually created new barriers to the exercise of sovereignty [End Page 15] or that it has weakened a previous sense of community. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the settlement act, Passamaquoddy elder Madonna Soctomah remarked, “I can remember when everybody took care of everybody else and that’s how we survived. We used to gather regularly and play games. Now there’s no community life here. It’s like everybody’s a recluse” (Tuttle).2 Thus, while recognition is often sought, it can also do violence to Native people, dividing them from their homelands and kin.
Competing investments in and stories about recognition are dramatically illustrated in the writing produced by Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people before and after their federal recognition cases. In this essay, I focus on a short-lived collaborative newsletter, The Aroostook Indian, produced out of Houlton, Maine, between 1969 and 1976. I then turn to two contemporary poets: Alice Azure (Mi’kmaq) and Mihku Paul (Maliseet). Both women presently live in urban areas of the United States, have connections in northern Maine, and have band affiliations in Canada, where most of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet reservations are located. This pair of writers lets us ask how off-reservation Native people with varying relationships to recognition write about land and community. While there is no simple or unified answer to this question, I suggest that the poets in particular describe wider territories and more capacious communities than recognition or its implementation normally implies or fosters.
Federal recognition has been an overriding goal of northeastern indigenous people in the US since the 1960s and 1970s. Tribes can be “unrecognized” for any number of reasons. Some were officially “terminated” under the federal termination and relocation policies of the 1950s.3 In the Northeast, where settler colonialism was well-entrenched before the United States formally came into being, many tribes already had treaties and land cessions with early colonial governments and tended to remain outside of US federal jurisdiction until they started pressing for recognition in the late twentieth century.
The activists working on behalf of Maine’s off-reservation Indians in the 1970s were acutely aware of the resources they were being denied for lack of recognition...