First Light Learning Journey

October 2020

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Watch Peter explain the work of First Light in this video

First Light

In Maine, three hundred and fifty years of oppression and racism systematically took the great majority of lands and waters from the Wabanaki. Today, Wabanaki people have access to less than 1% of the land that once supported their culture and prosperity. 90% of land in Maine is privately owned and 23% is stewarded by conservation organizations. 

I co-founded First Light in 2017 recognizing these very disturbing trends: 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 initially arose from those within the private, white-led conservation movement who sought to better understand the history of Wabanaki land loss in order to begin making amends. My personal motivations for starting First Light in 2017 are captured in this document. First Light has since been shaped and directed by the guidance of our Wabanaki colleagues.

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 ourselves 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. First Light Learning Journey helps Maine conservationists to grow 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. I speak more to the need for land justice in this presentation at the New York State Land Trust Conference.

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.

There have been many serious obstacles for First Light to address and attempt to overcome. For example,  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 harmful 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.

What we are most proud of:

In our Learning Journey and in our decision making, we have made a concerted effort to center and follow the perspectives and leadership of Wabanaki people. In October, Kathy Pollard and I organized a series of talks in which 10 Wabanaki people--representing 4 tribes and 3 generations--spoke unfettered on the importance of access to land to a group of 120 conservation leaders and their funders from across the state of Maine. 

A significant part of our work is to create a platform for Wabanaki voices to be heard. We are proud to have organized 50 conservation and funder organizations to commit to the Learning Journey in 2020, and of convening a powerful group of conservation leaders who are committed to listening to, learning from, and being changed by Wabanaki perspectives. 

Lastly, we’re proud of slowly supporting the creation of two pillars of future collaborative work to continue to respond to on-the-ground possibilities and projects across Maine that expand Wabanaki stewardship of land. We created a Conservation Community Delegation for Wabanaki engagement to pool resources and coordinate the conservation community’s best skills and abilities to best collaborate and respond to the needs and requests from the Wabanaki Commission on Land and Stewardship; Nil yut ktahkomiq nik (the whole earth is our home). The Wabanaki Commission on Land and Stewardship; Nil yut ktahkomiq nik will be composed of chief-appointed representatives from each tribe who will collectively decide how the projects to expand Wabanaki land will be shared equitably among the tribes. 

Right now, an equitable process that centers Indigenous voice is the necessary foundation for sharing and returning land, which has also begun to happen. This year, harvesting and gathering rights have been granted to Wabanaki people over 62,000 acres of conserved land and 1,000 acres have been repatriated in fee title.  This is just the beginning.

We must keep moving forward towards our vision of Wabanaki prosperity on the land. I made this challenge to conservation in June 2019 as we move into the next phase of our work.

First Light Learning Journey has received significant financial support from the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Kalliopeia Foundation, The Quimby Family Foundation, Broadreach Foundation, 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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