“The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations” by Shirley N. Hager and Mawopiyane; Aevo UTP / University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario, 2021; 306 pages, hardcover, $29.95.

I came upon a strange, surprisingly good book lately, “The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations.” It’s a collection of recollections concerning a series of “gatherings” in the 1980s and ’90s by more than a dozen white people and Maine and Canadian Wabanakis. Its title makes it sound like it might be a feel-good New Age tome, but it’s not.

Original co-organizer and co-editor Shirley N. Hager explains in an introduction that the gatherings, as the participants came to call them, were conceived in the mid-1980s when a small group of white people in Portland decided they wanted to address the painful history of settler-Native relations. They sought out members of Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac/Mi’kmaq and Maliseet communities — collectively referred to as Wabanaki, or Dawn Land, or First Peoples — who might be open to trying to create grass-roots relationships that might foster communication between deeply divided people. The first of the gatherings took place in 1987, and they continued once or twice a year through 1994.

The book, which is meant to summarize and in a way invoke the ideas and atmospheres of the gatherings, has roughly three parts: statements and summaries by the participants; a shorter middle part that answers the question of why the gatherings ended; and a group of loose essays that talk about the concerns, frictions and perils that arise when Natives and settlers’ descendants meet.

We learn that no one was sure how, or even if, the proceedings would work. Indigenous people of the Northeast were among the first to suffer the ravages of the European settlement of North America, and they harbor generational distrust after five centuries of mistreatment ranging from bad faith legal dealings to efforts to exterminate them. The white people suffer from a sense of generational guilt about this history, as well as the vague sense that they don’t understand the Native point of view.

It’s no surprise to find out that this gaping chasm is extremely difficult to bridge, even personally among a few dozen people with no other agenda than to try to communicate.

The difficulty is illustrated in the very first words of the first recollection by Miigam’agan, a Mi’kmaq woman of the Fish Clan in northeastern New Brunswick: “I used to get upset with my partner gkisedtanamoogk when he would go to these Gatherings. ‘Why do you invest time out there when there is so much work to be done at home?’ He would talk about the importance of building alliances and he would say, ‘Not everyone is arrogant, not everybody’s a racist. There are friends out there and they need our support too.’”

Despite her generations-deep skepticism, Miigam’agan is drawn into the gatherings, and eventually we learn that for her, the effort had some measure of success. Responding, later in the book, to a question posed to her by editor Hager about “the pressure Indigenous people can feel from non-Natives wanting to learn how to be more connected to the Earth,” Miigam’agan replies: “I’ve been … learning about European history and the comparisons with our (Native) culture. And I see that our spiritual knowledge, our Original instructions or Earth-based ways, were all the same.”

This in a way encapsulates the energy of the book as a whole. The Gatherings ended in 1994 when Native people not taking part grew suspicious — on the basis of generations of distrust of whites — and their objections overwhelmed the endeavor. But the communication and relationships forged among the participants gained an emotional and moral momentum of their own. In the 2010s some of the participants — calling themselves collectively “Mawopiyane,” a Passamaquoddy word meaning “let us sit together” — decided to preserve whatever they could of that momentum by assembling the book.

“The Gatherings” is an unusual book in its organization (which may be a reflection of the Native influence on the endeavor), and an unusual book in the powerful authenticity of feeling it expresses. The gatherings themselves were meant to be a start toward better understanding among deeply estranged peoples. The history of Native-settler relations goes back a long, painful way, and has a long, painful way to go, as a recent statement by new U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland about the dark past of indigenous boarding schools indicates. But this book shows there’s hope among well-meaning people.

“The Gatherings” is available through book stores, online book sellers and University of Toronto Press.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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