on friday we heard Dr. Rebecca Cardinal Sockbeson give a talk . Sockebson is an indigenous peoples education scholar and a member of the Penobscot Nation. her scholarship and activism have done important work for Native Americans, and all people – such as helping to remove the use of “squaw” in Maine place names and getting LD 291 – An Act to Require Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture in Maine’s Schools emplaced in K-12 classrooms.
Doctor Sockbeson began her presentation by having us stand and join her in singing, the longest walk , an intertribal song used for the 1978 cross country walk by Native Americans speaking out for rights. This introduction was moving and connecting.
Sockbeson talked about how indigenous ways of knowing are disputed by academia, which insists upon “empirical evidence” as the only way of knowing. She counters that indigenous knowledge is empirical evidence – Native peoples have seen the reality of their intellectual traditions such as basket weaving for millenniums, therefore they know the truth of their traditions – and that is their empirical evidence.
She uses examples from her own life and family as empirical evidence, like showing a picture of her great grandmother as a young girl holding a dog as a segue into talking about the Spencer Phips proclamation. Her grandmother’s generation was the first to survive genocide that was enacted in full force with Spencer Phips’ bounty on behalf of the king of England, which offered cash rewards for Penobscot scalps. Such bounties were inflicted on indigenous people all across the Eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada since 1755 – causing 97% population depletion amongst Natives. The intention was that indigenous people would be wiped out. As Passamaquoddy poet and elder Mary Basset says, “We’re not supposed to be here” – according to colonizers. Yet natives are still here, and deserve to be here.
Knowledge of survival, argues Sockbeson, is the reason for mobilizing indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge of oppression is necessary because it brings context to the effects of colonization. Unemployment and poverty are 30% higher for Maine Native Americans than the average Maine citizen, and life expectancy rates are 15 years lower for Natives. Sockbeson points out the reason for this disparity is colonial history and all the suffering it has brought tribes. When young people understand this and understand all they’ve survived – they are less likely to succumb to internalized oppression that tells them to believe they are inferior. Rather than believe negative stereotypes about themselves, young natives can unpack the root of the problem: colonization.
Ignorance isn’t bliss in this situation, Sockbeson says. Knowledge of survival is intrinsic knowledge. Red Hope is battling death of indigenous ways of knowing and being, such as the ability and right to speak one’s native language, practice beliefs and share creation stories. “I teach my kids our creation story of Gluskape making us from the ash tree – that’s how we were given entrance into this world” Sockbeson said, but society, even the teachers, tell natives their birthright is just a myth.
Sockbeson talked about the importance of having indigenous scholars in academia – and at UMaine there are so few. She says compulsory Native American studies courses need to be here. There are few indigenous faculty on campus or Native aesthetics, yet the university is on Wabanaki territory and everyone is benefitting from the colonizing of Penobscots –except for Penobscots themselves. Sockbeson quoted Penobscot artist ssipsis, who pointed out how often natives think of white people, but how seldom, if ever, whites are asked to consider natives.
Sockbeson calls for use of political will to create a revolution in instiutions such as academia. Bringing rights to practice our own cultures in places such as the university – means overturning the current “universal-way” standards. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. also called for revolutions in institutions. The university yields a lot of power in distributing knowledge, but as Sockbeson points out, knowledge doesn’t belong to anyone. Knowledge is the energy passed between us when we have these discussions.
Dr. Sockbeson also talked about Peonobscot scholar Eunice Baumann Nelson’s awareness of string theory and how we’re all connected: taking care of you is taking care of me – an understanding that makes us be respectful and loving, makes us use loving words, thoughts and actions. Spirituality is reality, and who we are is in our blood and in the land.
Doctor Sockbeson taught us a lot about decolonization and practicing human rights and being stellar.