First Light Learning Journey

June 2020

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First Light: We Care Deeply About Equity for People And Place

Maine’s Native people, and people involved in land conservation in Maine, care deeply for and about land and place.  This shared care for nature creates opportunities. Cultural and economic prosperity begins with the land.  First Light recognizes that 350 years of oppression and racism has systematically taken from the Wabanaki the great majority of land and water that once made Wabanaki culture and prosperity.  Today, Wabanaki people have access to less than 1% of the land that once supported their place-based cultures. Land Trusts now have ties to almost 20% of the state which very likely includes untold places of importance to Wabanaki people.  

First Light recognizes very disturbing trends:  we recognize that the growth of the conservation movement in Maine came about by acquiring the lands that Wabanaki people were forced to relinquish.  We do not want to perpetuate this stark world of winners and losers and seek to use our power and privilege today to share, reconcile, and repatriate.  This desire is about reciprocity not charity. Wabanaki prosperity and deep connection and use of this entire landscape of Maine enriches Maine immeasurably and enriches our conservation movement immeasurably.

We don't have the power to change treaties, or to change a long history of colonization and injustice, but we can help change the future. This work arises from those within a conservation movement who seek to learn and change, and from dialogue with Wabanaki leaders have been willing to share their time and stories. My motivations for starting First Light in 2017 are captured in this document

The imperative for why this work is important is best captured in this 2019 poem by Natalie Dana-Lolar, Passamaquoddy:

In this time
In this time of posted land.
Where do we go...
How do we live...
No food and medicine and gathered...
No game honorably killed and eaten...

In this time of posted land.
Where can we go without being shot at.
Can we live sustainably...
How do we maintain our culture...
No sweetgrass picked.
No ash fallen.

In this time of posted land.
Where can we go, where is our place...
Can we live interconnected...
How do we maintain us as a people.
No lands to move seasonally.
No way to maintain our ancestor’s way of life.

In this time of posted land.
Where can we look for help.
Can we call upon our allies.
How do we know who to trust.
No continual ancestry land.
No way to move about.
In this time of posted land
Is there hope....

To reach that hope, we need to create a reliably safe place for culture change within the conservation movement. We hope our shared narrative about place can grow over time as result of successful projects. First Light helps Maine conservationists to grow and exercise their cultural competency muscles through exploring Wabanaki history, the history of colonization and indigenous land loss, and the meaning and value of decolonizing conservation. If our conservation movement can focus its attention on expanding Wabanaki access to land and water, which is dependent on key leaders and organizations discussing colonization and the role of land conservation to decolonization, we will have created a practical place to begin a much-needed long-term dialogue in conservation on race, power and privilege. Read more about the case for land justice and First Light in this presentation I gave at the New York State Land Trust Conference.


Members of First Light Learning Journey are the four Wabanaki Tribes plus interested individual tribal members and the program directors, senior staff, board members, and land managers for Maine’s largest conservation groups. 


First Light is an ongoing, sustained learning journey between two cultures, Wabanaki culture and conservation culture, for the express purpose of expanding Wabanaki stewardship of land.   Conservation leaders learn about Wabanaki land loss in Maine and about indigenous land loss across the Americas and then learn from the contemporary lives of each the five Wabanaki communities.  Wabanaki leaders travel to land trust offices and conservation areas to learn about the philosophy, ideology and practical tools of conservation.  Together, Wabanaki and conservationists create “third spaces” that are co-creations of both cultures.  To-date, these third spaces have included a canoe expedition down the west branch of the Penobscot River and a major collaborative gathering at the foot of Katahdin.  Future third space co-creations might include a culture camp for indigenous and non-indigenous youth or whatever the members of First Light feel would be helpful and transformative.


Those are the reasons to collaborate, and there are also many good reasons why the coming together of cultures in First Light is very difficult to begin and sustain.  

First, because of a long history of betrayal and genocide, for Native and non-Native people to come together to talk about land is a charged topic anywhere in America and especially in Maine where the topic has been mostly untouched to fester for generations.

In their power and privilege, Maine conservation leaders and organizations could be filled with self-satisfaction at their past successes and have little motivation to leave their comfort zones to examine the past or to invest the time and resources necessary to work in the present with what some might call a small minority of people.   And, there is blood memory inside many Wabanaki people of 350 years of colonization, oppression and isolation that leaves little time or inclination to invest resources in something arising from that history.  And, there have been promises made in the present time between the conservation community and Wabanaki people that have been broken.  

There are Wabanaki leaders we trust and value who have said this project of expanding Wabanaki stewardship of land is too little, too late. There are other Wabanaki leaders we trust and value who warned us that this collaboration might come across as just another ploy for progressive white people to claim “friendship” with Native people.   Many Wabanaki people have rightly and justly questioned the conservation movement’s sincerity around sharing access to lands they own or have relationships in or to eventually repatriate some lands.   If First Light doesn’t keep going forward with our learning and pushing this work to its logical conclusions about equity, we will be guilty of all of these statements.

And, of course, the desire of a privileged white community to “share” back land that once completely belonged to Wabanaki people can be hurtful and injurious. All of these feelings and assumptions are true and present, and they could easily become a solid wall that makes any communication, trust-building and positive work together impossible. Good will, alone, from either culture cannot overcome these realities. We must demonstrate at each step our capacity to learn, to evolve and to take action.


Our accomplishments are that there are more real projects to expand Wabanaki stewardship of land.  

Some within First Light are working right now on mapping of hundreds of thousands of acres of conserved lands for the presence of ash and of the emerald ash borer. Some are running educational programs for Wabanaki youth and fully engaging Wabanaki elders in writing the management plans of lands we steward. Some are committed to loaning our funds to help Tribes acquire land, and some of us have recently done that at Nibezun and also helped to raise those funds. Some of us are working on public policy to improve tribal sustenance hunting rights. Some of us are working quietly and steadfastly to see that return to the Passamaquoddy tribe of their land at Meddybemps Lake. Some have granted harvesting permits over to over tens of thousands of acres to Wabanaki people affirming the seriousness of our intent. You can read more about the Steps Forward our participants are taking here

While projects are important, we also seek to create good process.  We feel good that in our first two years of programming we were able to devote considerable (but not enough) time to understanding Wabanaki land loss, to spending considerable time in each of the Wabanaki home grounds, to jointly co-creating a major gathering at Katahdin that reflected the needs and expectations of both communities, and that half of every dollar raised for this undertaking went directly to  Wabanaki tribes and people.

We also succeeded in drafting a new legal tool, a cultural use and respect agreement, that was reviewed in advance by all the tribal attorneys and then shared and talked about at this gathering.

Our achievements are that we have come together under honest, transparent pretexts for reciprocal benefits.

We must keep moving forward towards our vision of Wabanaki prosperity on the land. At our Katahdin conference, I made this challenge to conservation as we move into the next phase of our work.

The current phase of First Light, beginning in 2020, addresses how opportunities for expanding land stewardship will be handled equitably among the Tribes. 

1) Collaboration and Building Voice: we are simultaneously working on building capacity, voice and power of Wabanaki leadership to meaningfully identify and respond to land access opportunities through the creation of a Wabanaki Task Force on Land and Land Stewardship, while organizing the conservation movement through a Conservation Delegation to pool its resources and put its best skills and abilities forward to collaborate and respond.

2) Steps Forward: We are continuing to respond to on-the-ground possibilities and projects across Maine that expand Wabanaki stewardship of land. 

3) Learning Journey: We are launching a new phase of educational programs to continue the learning aspect of First Light that will spread our collaboration to more land trusts, public agencies, and private landowners. 

First Light Learning Journey has received significant financial support from the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Kalliopeia Foundation, The Quimby Family Foundation, Broadreach Foundaiton, The Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, The Stifler Family Foundation, The Nature Conservancy in Maine, and more than 50 individual donors including an anonymous mother and daughter who care deeply about the success of this collaboration.

Facilitation Type:

Learning Journeys

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