Reflecting on the Lisa Brooks Lecture

15 Mar

Lisa Brooks, Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College, visited Smith last month to give a lecture titled “Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Indigenous Protest and Revitalization in the Northeast” for the Environmental Knowledge, Indigenous Knowledge, Local Knowledge Lecture Series sponsored by the Environmental Science and Policy Program.

Although I am somewhat familiar with the geographic area Brooks discussed in her lecture—namely northern New England and the Connecticut River—I knew little about the Native Wabanaki roots tied to this region; a place I now know is also known as the Wabanaki coast.  And though I was raised and educated in Massachusetts, I was, perhaps not surprisingly, taught to observe our local history through the European (conquerer) lens rather than understanding historical events from multiple perspectives.  Brooks made me reflect upon the fact that few individuals—including me—actually understand the Wabanaki’s relationship with the land and how it was affected by the arrival of the settlers. And perhaps as importantly, how this relationship with the land informed their relationship with the settlers.

During her lecture, Brooks discussed examples of Native protest and revitalization from the rivers of the Wabanaki coast to the Connecticut River in order to illustrate that environmental protest, something many think of as being a modern experience, actually have historic roots in New England.  The idea of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ was emphasized throughout the lecture—that is, understanding the relationship of living beings with one another, as well as their relationship with the environment. In particular, she focused on building an understanding of the importance of fish to the cities of Portsmouth and Falmouth, New Hampshire—predominant fishing and logging communities–and the native villages which relied on fish as a food source, and how the relationships each group had with the fish and the world around them eventually led Wabanaki leaders to express great concern about the misuse of this precious natural resource.

The Wabanaki people felt that a respect for the land was lost during this time of colonial industrialism.  The combination of fish and logging in the area kept settlers so busy that shipping food to the cities was necessary to feed the community—signifying that people were distancing themselves from the land. Furthermore, ecological damage arose from the (over)use of the two natural resources (fish and lumber) and the establishment of dams, which prevented the natural movement of the river and its organisms- fish in particular.

Brooks pointed out the uniqueness of this situation as a whole, in that the colonial governor at the time supported the Wabanaki people in their request to uphold laws to protect the land and rivers and creatures.  However, there was no enforcement, and the Wabanaki, and later the settlers, suffered the consequences. Many years later, the established dams were released, and land that was intended for development became protected and preserved.  Brooks concluded the lecture with a brief explanation of how she came to learn about this history from the Wabanaki elders on an area of preserved land on the Wabanaki Coast.  However,  I found myself wanting to know more about her personal ties to the Wabanaki coast, and more about how she was able to piece together this history and understanding of the ecological knowledge she spoke of—something she only touched on, but which I think is an important aspect of the lecture as a whole.

-Emily Dwyer, ’13

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