Wabanaki-Greenland connections

A story by Jennifer Sapiel Neptune from 2023

Kalaallit Nunaat ~ Greenland by Jennifer Neptune

In June of 2022 I traveled to Greenland as part of a small group of artists exploring cultural resiliency in this time of rapidly changing climate. Why Greenland?

We are connected by water and currents, by migrating Atlantic Salmon, by stories, ice, and climate change. As a traditional Penobscot basketmaker climate change is impacting the sweetgrass I harvest, the ash trees that I need for basketry splints, and access myself and other Indigenous cultural practitioners need to coastlines, rivers, plants, fish, and animals.

20,000 years ago where you stand now was covered in a mile of ice. An enormous ice sheet covered Wabanaki territory, and what we now call Maine. As the ice retreated north massive changes happened to this landscape, the Gulf of Maine, and all who inhabited it. Sea levels rose and fell, rivers were reborn from the ice, islands rose or sank under the sea, and some animals like Mammoths and Mastodons disappeared entirely.

Our people still pass down the stories of this time and how the world changed as we lived with, and beside, the Laurentide Ice Sheet. In Greenland I saw our stories come to life in their landscape. Witnessed shapes and otherworldly faces in the ice that had me constantly replaying in my mind every traditional story I know.

In a traditional story of how the Penobscot River was formed, a giant frog held back all the fresh water causing a water famine. The fish, the animals, and people were dying of thirst until Gluskap comes and smashes the giant, releasing all the water. Some people are so happy and relieved they jump into the flood and are turned into salmon, sturgeon, eels, turtles and whales. Imagine my surprise on day two in Greenland to stand in front of an ice formation shaped like an enormous frog with a smirk in his grin.

In Greenland I felt as if I was traveling with an entourage of ancestors, who shared in my joy and excitement of each experience that felt more like remembering than discovering. In Maine, Caribou were hunted out by unsustainable non-indigenous hunting practices a hundred years ago. In Greenland I cried when I tasted caribou meat for the first time, I felt surrounded by ancestors who had been starving, and my DNA and spirit had been starving too for nourishment that had been lost for so long I didn’t know I missed it.

Flying home, the clouds parted as we flew over the Labrador Sea. Looking down at the chunks of ice floating there, I thought about the endangered Atlantic Salmon who make the journey from their birth places in the Penobscot River watershed to the sea between Labrador and Greenland, to grow and return home to spawn another generation. Unlike Pacific Salmon they live to return to the sea again after spawning. Miracles with fins, too stubborn to die.

Looking out over the vastness of Labrador from my window, I recalled an old story about a woman from the far north who flew as a loon to our territory to warn the people about what was to come, to try to buy us a little more time before everything changed forever. There are things you can never get back. I wondered what she would say now, and would those that needed most to hear her warning most even be able to listen.

We belong to the same river
The salmon and us
pαnawάhpskewtəkʷ (Penobscot)
We were born for each other
Both as stubborn as the rocks
our home is named after.
We refuse to give up
We refuse to die.

In the spring if you are quiet
you might hear young skʷámekʷak (Atlantic Salmon)
Singing their traveling songs
as they swim for the Labrador Sea.
To grow strong and become wise
To meet the ice with the long memory
Where ancestors still dance the dance
of lights in the sky.

We remember
Far back, long ago, stories of the ice
The winters that didn’t end
Until Glooskap stole summer,
the ice retreated, defeated.
wαpskʷ, the white bear followed
those that stayed changed and adapted.
The rivers returned.

For thousands upon thousands of years
the land and waters rose and fell.
Change, adapt, in, out, retreat, advance
like a breath that takes eons.
Tundra retreated, abandoning plants and insects
that still hold their space on the very tops of the oldest,
most sacred mountains.

If I could, I would
Bend the straight linear west
back into a circle, back to the dawn.
Save us all from the pit of grief
which comes with living a dystopian race
of metal, greed, and longing
that moves too fast to adapt and
leaves the plants atop Katahdin weeping
as the summer marches further north.

There is no end to the loneliness
Grief over what can never, ever be returned
And it is not just the fate of fish
Or one small tribe of people
Our fates all tied to the smallest of beings
We are all endangered
We are all in danger.

-Jennifer Sapiel Neptune ~ January 2023

Jennifer Sapiel Neptune in Greenland, 2022

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