YORK, Maine – When oral
tradition and spiritual practice come up against the
dominant society’s ideas about property rights and land use,
who gets to decide what is historical fact, what is legend
and what is sacred?
In York, a pristine
southern Maine town of ocean-view mansions and a bustling
summer tourist trade, that dilemma is playing out between
the Mount Agamenticus Conservation Region – a nonprofit
conservation coalition of state, town, landowners and
environmental organizations – and a small group of local
American Indians who are trying to protect their sacred site
on Mount Agamenticus.
The group is led by Brian
Spirit Bear Michaud, Pennacook/Micmac, who complained last
summer to Robin Stanley, coordinator of the conservation
region, and to the town manager about the removal of stones
from a mound at the mountain’s summit that memorializes 17th
century Pennacook Chief Sachem Passaconaway.
Descendants of the
Pennacook, an Eastern Abenaki Nation tribe in southern
coastal Maine and northern New Hampshire, have gathered for
hundreds of years at this stone mound for prayer and
ceremonies. Michaud told Indian Country Today. They
traditionally add a “prayer stone” to the pile.
The mound pays homage to
St. Aspinquid, Passaconaway’s Christian name. The Pennacooks
believe that Passaconaway (“Son of the Bear”) banished an
evil spirit from the mountain and was buried there.
Last summer, the
conservation region and town removed stones from the mound
and used them to border a garden of shrubs and other
Now Stanley says St.
Aspinquid “never existed” and the rock pile should be moved.
“The more research I
conduct, the more I am convinced that St. Aspinquid is not
the same as Passaconaway and that St. Aspinquid never
existed,” Stanley wrote in a report to the town.
The sacred site needs to be
“cleaned up” because of the stone “overflow” that violates
the conservation region’s “Leave No Trace” policy, Stanley
said in the report. She recommends relocating the stone’s
away from the summit and erecting a sign that “will not
suggest that St. Aspinquid is buried at the mountain, nor
will the pile be a designated memorial to him. Rather, a new
sign will attempt to inform visitors of the St. Aspinquid
legend and how the folklore itself has become a part of Mt.
Before moving forward,
Stanley wants everything formally authorized.
“I would like it [the
legend of St. Aspinquid, the gravesite, the memorial, and/or
the sacred status of the mountain itself]
legitimized/validated. I believe this should be the
responsibility of Brian [Michaud] and the Bureau of Indian
Affairs (?). I would like the historical certificate/stamp
of approval. Any research, including archaeological digs,
should be at their expense.”
Two years ago, Michaud
complained to Stanley about the original sign being removed.
Michael Sullivan, the
town’s director of Parks and Recreation, said that Stanley’s
recommendations will be presented to the town for approval.
The town bought Mount Agamenticus in the early 1980s.
He said the town “has never
really authorized any kind of memorial,” and he believes
that the stone pile only began in the early 1980s when a
sign was erected describing the “legend” of St. Aspinquid.
“That’s when people started
to bring stones and the pile grew tremendously quickly.”
Sullivan acknowledged the
difference of opinion between Michaud and Stanley, but he
said the steering committee is “wide open” to maintain a
stone pile somewhere on the mountain. The important thing is
that it is “managed.”
Stanley’s management plan
is in her report: the larger rocks will be used to form a
border around the prayer stones and any “overflow” stones
will be removed; American Indians “are encouraged to offer
input” on the new site and on which rocks are moved, and
they can help move them, but the steering committee has the
“final determination”; if the rocks that were removed from
the mound last summer and used as garden borders are removed
from the garden borders and if no “official recognition” of
the site is issued by April 1, 2009, the conservation region
will not be required “to maintain any rocks, etc., at any
“I think they’re saying
that they respect the legend. Given the fact that the Mt. A
steering committee will let the pile happen somewhere on the
mountain, I think that means the steering committee is
admitting that you can’t prove it; so to put the whole
burden of proof on the Native Americans – I don’t know if
that’s proper,” Sullivan said.
The proper thing is to
respect other people’s right to practice their religion,
“I have suffered great
disrespect and discrimination against me by the
aforementioned people. They have done this deliberately
because I defend my right to practice my faith/spirituality
or religion, as they may deem it, in a place that I have
been brought up at all of my 52 years. I was even wed atop
the summit in 1999.”
The historical record, even
among non-Natives, goes back hundreds of years.
“It is well established
that the town of York stands on the ancient lands of the
Pennacook People, specifically, the Accominta Clan of the
Pennacooks, which is where the name ‘Agamenticus’ comes
from,” he said.
“People bring stones to the
grave in honor of a great Native American and they do so
with the idea of respect. The town of York needs to respect
everyone’s religious/cultural and spiritual background and
stop disturbing the prayer stones left to honor the
ancestors. This site should not be moved; it should be
protected and marked properly. Local natives do not go to
cemeteries and steal grave stones to make flower gardens.
“Plain and simply put, why
is York allowing a couple of employees to make decisions for
the whole community?”
by Bonnie Delcourt