The debate about Skowhegan’s Indian mascot has ignored the tragic fate of the Kennebec Wabanaki, who were victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The full story is told in “The Embattled Northeast” by the late Kenneth M. Morrison. His exhaustive examination of ancient texts and traditions counteracts the racist stereotypes that the mascot invokes.

“I was born in a small Maine town [Skowhegan] on the Kennebec River — a place that had once been home to the Norridgewock Abenaki,” Morrison wrote. “Among my earliest recollections are family excursions … to Old Point Cemetery where my immigrant ancestors rest in what had once been the fields of Norridgewock. A weathered stone obelisk … commemorates the ancient importance of this place.”

These childhood memories provoked a lifelong effort to understand Native Americans on their own terms.

Morrison’s portrait of the Wabanaki differed from historians who drew only upon deeply biased English and French sources. Louise Coburn, for example, wrote in “Skowhegan on the Kennebec” that “Under the Indians the land knew neither government nor ownership. There was no law of the land, only chieftainship of the tribe.”

Actually, Native politics were so different that colonial authorities mistook them for anarchy.

Despite persistent efforts by Massachusetts authorities to equate “chieftainship” with kingship, the role of the sagamores was to seek consensus in tribal affairs; they could persuade but not command. They had no authority to make treaties selling commonly held lands, but Massachusetts officials refused to accept this limitation.

Notwithstanding repeated attempts to subject Kennebecs to colonial authority, the tribe never surrendered its autonomy or right to repel white-settler incursions. Religious prejudice and cultural misunderstanding provoked conflict. Although Natives initially did not understand that the English sought exclusive use of the land, they soon learned otherwise. Colonial authorities adamantly enforced any Indian “deed,” whether obtained with unauthorized signatures, abuse of alcohol, bribery, intimidation or mistranslation of treaties.

Persistent English lawlessness on the frontier complicated the problem. Government control was weak, and assaults on Natives unrestrained. When the tribes resisted, colonial authorities, ignoring settler aggression, struck back harshly. The ruling ethic — “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” — sprang from Puritan belief that Natives were “spawn of Satan.”

With their preliterate respect for the spoken word, the Wabanaki were deeply dismayed by English manipulation, untruthfulness and dishonor. They challenged falsifications with, “We are not liars like you,” but their protests only fanned hostility.

By 1724, according to Morrison, the Kennebecs were doomed. Massachusetts authorities decided to wipe them out. Supposing that the Kennebecs’ missionary priest, French Jesuit Father Sébastien Râle, was the source of Native resistance, they placed a 100-pound bounty on his head, with lesser amounts offered for the scalps of men, women and children in his flock.

A force of English soldiers sneaked up the river and struck Norridgewock by surprise on Aug. 23, 1724. The soldiers pursued mothers and their babies to bloody death. They shot at families fleeing in canoes and lamented that 50 bodies floated downstream before they could be scalped. The attackers obscenely mutilated Father Râle’s body and later paraded his scalp in triumph through the streets of Boston.

Morrison concluded that the assault by marauders on “Norridgewock represents passionately contested ideals, political infamy and the enduring hatred of religious fervor. … They left Norridgewock a smoldering ruin, its people killed or dispersed, and its old French priest dead among his people.” In the aftermath, settlers flooded up the fertile Kennebec Valley.

Inextricably linked to his search for truth and justice was Morrison’s embrace of the existential philosophy of Martin Buber.

Buber maintained that humans see fellow beings in two types of relationships: “I-It” or “I-Thou.” In the first, we perceive the others to be dehumanized and impersonal. In the second, we recognize their sacredness. Human life finds its meaning in these deeper “I-Thou” encounters, leading ultimately to God, the Eternal Thou.

According to Morrison, the merciless slaughter of 80 men, women and children was the worst kind of “I-It” encounter. So-called civilized Englishmen could murder babies only by denying the humanity of the helpless infants.

Skowhegan High School’s Indian mascot focuses on such a narrow sliver of Wabanaki reality that it cannot be anything but caricature. Its use to intimidate opposing high school teams perpetuates long-held racist stereotypes and ignores the tragic fate of those allegedly honored. Maine’s Native Americans understandably are offended.

Sadly for the adherents of the mascot, Skowhegan’s Indian heritage is inextricably bound up with cold-blooded genocide at Norridgewock. Like the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor or the massacre at Wounded Knee, Aug. 23, 1724, is a day that will live in infamy.

Richard Hunt is a retired history professor. He worked with Ken Morrison in graduate school at the University of Maine and on the Maine Indian land claims case in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: