Nahmuns River Reflections

by Butch Phillips

Editor's note: Butch Phillips will be writing periodic articles for the Northwoods Sporting Journal dealing with Native American issues, concerns and history

Nahmun, a young Penobscot Indian man, cast a spinner bait toward the shore trying to entice a smallmouth bass As his canoe drifted downstream, he would occasionally lift the paddle with one hand and steer the canoe to keep it parallel with the shore. An eagle made its way up the river and landed in one of the many oak trees that lined the shore of the island. Nahmun thought how nice it was to see an eagle on the river. His father had told him the eagle, that is revered by his people, at one time ceased to exist on the river due to DDT poisoning.

As he worked his lure around a "dead head" log, Nahmun thought how different his life is.. compared to that of his ancestors. He was fishing among the islands that are the ancestral homelands of the Penobscot Indian Nation. He was traveling by canoe, the ancient mode of transportation, although, it was a modern Kevlar canoe, not the birch bark canoe of his ancestors. Rod and reel were the latest in fishing technology used in casting a dozen different lures, unlike the ancestors. Spears and nets were used to catch their fish.

His mind drifted back to the days when only the Native People traveled this river The Elders had taught him about the sacredness of the river and about the creatures that lived there. The elders also stressed the importance of respect and reverence that was to be shown to all. He thought how peaceful and beautiful this river must have been. The river was clean, pure and free flowing. The woods and waters had an abundance of fish, game and medicines to provide for the people. He could see in his day dream, thousands of salmon, shad and alewives ascending the river towards their spawning steams. The People gathered at their favorite spots to spear and net the fish. The fish was dried and stored to sustain them for a long time. The People were content and happy. The river was taking care of all the creatures. Nahmun wondered why the river had changed so much and why the People and their traditions had changed also

Nahmun stopped fishing for a moment and lay back in the canoe, watching the tops of the trees go silently by. As he drifted along with a slight current, his mind again drifted back to the "old days", but this time he saw a drastic change taking place. He saw a different attitude arriving on the river and the river was destined to be treated in a way that would be disheartening to the ancestors and would change their way of life forever.

Settlements sprang up surrounding the few Indian villages scattered along the river. The river was clogged with logs where once an occasional canoe traveled.. Dams appeared on the river and tributaries that impeded canoe travel where the beaver built dams to enhance canoe travel. He saw where the sea run fish once traveled freely up the river, the dams kept them out.. Once there were falls and rapids, new ponds were created by the dams. The towns and mills built on the shores dumped their pollutants into the river. The precious, pristine, free flowing river that the ancestors had revered and protected for the future generations was destroyed.

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The change had a drastic effect on the People and the creatures. The caribou and the beaver went away. The eagle and the osprey went away. The salmon, shad and alewives went away. The People went away from the river also. The People and the ancestors wept, but their tears could not flush the poisons from the river. Their protests could not stop the dams and mills or the increasing population along the river. With this change came a change to the way of life of the People and to their traditions as well.

In the past ,when the People needed help, they summoned Gluskbe, their cultural hero, for help Gluskbe would not come back either. The people then appealed to the Legislature to help stop this destruction to the river and to their way of life. However, their Indian voices fell on deaf ears because the Legislature believed that the river like the people had been conquered by the settlers. The Indian People lost their precious river and were now invisible.

A sudden splash broke the day dream and caused Nahmun to sit upright. The eagle had dived into the river and arose with a small pickerel. Watching the eagle fly to his perch high in the oak tree, Nahmun started casting his lure once again. The eagle had reminded him of another change that was taking place on the river. A change for the better. Nahmun's father had told him about the federal programs that initiated the clean up of the river. His father explained the Pollution Control Act of 1956; the Anadromous Fish Act of 1960, and the Clean Water Act of 1972 which provided the incentives to begin the restoration of the Penobscot and the other rivers.

With the actions and programs of the State and various user groups, the river started to cleanse itself.

Finally people were becoming aware of the serious destruction to the river. They came to understand what the Native People had been telling them for so long. "If you cause harm to Mother Earth, you will eventually cause harm to mankind." A serious effort had begun to reverse the damage to the river. While the towns and mills still exist, the Pollution Abatement programs drastically reduced the amount of pollutants in the river. The dams were improved to enhance fish passage upstream and downstream. Logs no longer jammed the river as the river drives were curtailed. In 1975, the Penobscot Nation became a federally recognized tribe and through grants became very involved in the restoration effort.

The salmon, beaver, eagle and osprey came back and the People came back to the river also. The young Indian man thought how happy the ancestors must be to see them and the river again, cleansing itself. The ancestors were happy to see the People again treating the river as a living, breathing being-The river that they once cared for and protected so that it could be passed on for the future generations to enjoy.

Nahmun thought to himself; are the ancestors smiling? "How can they be happy when there are still unseen poisons in the river that are causing suffering for the People, not unlike the unknown diseases that killed so many of our People nearly four hundred years ago." Nahmun held up a two pound bass for a few moments before re leasing it. He thought about the present dangers that still exist from eating the fish from these waters. There have been great strides to restore this river and we can be proud of the many accomplishments, but until we can safely eat the fish again as our ancestors did, the precious Circle of Life of this river will not be completed.

Nahmun carefully released the bass back into the river and as it swam away, he said to the fish, "Woli Woni" (Thank You). And all my Relations, "Woli Woni."

Butch Phillips is an Elder of the Penobscot Indian Nation.

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