Peskotomuhkati Persistence

The traditional territory of the Peskotomuhkati Nation is the watershed of the Schoodic (St. Croix) River and Passamaquoddy Bay. For centuries, the Peskotomuhkati way of life was a seasonal, cyclical round, in which the people left light footprints on the land. They would be in specific places at specific times of the year: upstream on the lakes in mid-December when the tommycod were spawning; inland after that to hunt caribou and tap maple; down to the Bay in the spring to dig clams and fish behind the weirs; out to the islands to take seal and porpoise; upstream to the salmon falls in the summer, fishing and gathering as they went. Qonaskamkuk, the present site of St. Andrews, was the fire place, the place where the councils of the nation were held. Well into the twentieth century, the people lived by this extensive use of the land, and Passamaquoddy Bay was like a generous cauldron full of food.

The 1725 Treaty contemplated coexistence between two peoples and two distinct ways of life. The British would have permanent farming and fishing settlements, occupying the land intensively. The Peskotomuhkati people would use the land in an extensive way, following their seasonal round. Trade flourished, the hard goods and farm produce of the settlers exchanged with Peskotomuhkati baskets, fish and wooden goods.

The Treaties of the 18th century were made at a time when Britain and France were competing for colonial dominance of northeastern North America. By 1760, it was no contest: there were over three million British settlers along the Atlantic coast, and just over 75,000 French colonists in New France. With the elimination of French power, British colonies began to press westward into the interior. Britain preferred to have coastal colonies, economically dependent on the motherland, as well as an orderly progression of settlement.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 protected Indigenous lands from colonial encroachment, but it was often ignored. Though it was originally intended as a temporary measure, it was not replaced, and became known as “the Indians’ Magna Carta.” Colonial governments resented it, and resented their lack of representation in Parliament. The American Revolution, in the northeast, was a civil war into which both sides sought to draw the Peskotomuhkati people, who mainly tried to stay out of the way. The end of the American Revolution saw the creation of the new colony of New Brunswick, which had previously been part of Nova Scotia. United Empire Loyalists flooded across the new border, and settled heavily in Peskotomuhkati country. The colonial government in Fredericton was unable to impose much order on settlement, and saw its priority as addressing the needs of the Loyalists rather than the Indigenous people, whom it viewed as an obstacle, and as unreliable subjects.
Despite promises from the colonial Governor, St. Andrews was settled on Peskotomuhkati council and cemetery sites. The salmon falls were stopped up by a dam that served first the lumber industry and then a cotton mill. Peskotomuhkati fishing was elbowed aside by intensive settler commercial fisheries. By the second half of the 1800s, Peskotomuhkati people were being prosecuted for hunting and fishing. The few “reserves” that were created informally disappeared as a result of dubious sales or executive action. They were small areas of seasonal significance to the Peskotomuhkati people. Settlers moved into these choice places when the Peskotomuhkati people were away.

Sakom John NicholasSakom John Nicholas, over 100 years old

(Charlotte County Archives)

 

Many Peskotomuhkati people moved to the American side of their territory, where the two reservations at Sipayik (Pleasant Point) and Motahkomikuk (Indian Township) at least provided an assured land base. The constitution of the State of Maine provides for one tribal representative for each of the Peskotomuhkati and Penobscot Tribes in the State Legislature.

Until the 1970s, the Peskotomuhkati Nation had only state recognition rather than being a “federally recognized tribe” in the United States. In 1980, the Maine Indian Settlement Act resolved land issues between the Penobscot and Peskotomuhkati Nations and the State of Maine, though serious issues about jurisdiction and fisheries remain to be addressed.

While Peskotomuhkati families were scattered throughout their territory on the Canadian side, they were concentrated in two main areas: their ancient capital at Qonaskamkuk (St. Andrews), and their more northerly settlement at Mohannes. Margaret Bassett Nicholas, whose recollections were recorded in 1997, remembered that when she was a young girl, in the 1920s, she visited Indian Point, the Peskotomuhkati settlement near the station grounds, where there were over twenty houses.

By the 1950s, only the Akagi family, descendants of Sakom John Nicholas, was left. Ramona Homan Akagi received Peskotomuhkati visitors from the other side of the bay in the same manner that chiefs had done for centuries. When she passed away, her son Hugh took over the responsibilities. With the first election on the Canadian side, in 1998, he became elected chief as well as traditional Sakom. For the next eighteen years, though, the Government of Canada maintained a policy of refusing to address him as “Chief.” This ended after Minister Carolyn Bennett promised in early 2016 to complete the process of formal recognition pursuant to Canada’s Indian Act.

Two Peskotomuhkati “Indian reserves” in New Brunswick survived into the 20th century: the Canoose and St. Croix reserves were administered by the Government of Canada pursuant to the Indian Act. By the 1930s, the Indian Agent in Fredericton was complaining that the reserves were difficult to protect against American loggers coming across the river to harvest the timber; that no Indians lived on the reserves; and that they should be disposed of.

The reserve at Milltown was somehow granted to the church corporation of the parish of St. Stephen in 1802.

Passamaquoddy encampment at Indian Point, Qonaskamkuk

Passamaquoddy encampment at Indian Point, Qonaskamkuk (St. Andrews) 1899

(Charlotte County Archives)

Canada sold the Canoose Reserve in 1937 without a surrender. Chief John Nicholas had refused to surrender the land, but he died in 1933. When a lawyer for the Peskotomuhkati families who used the reserve inquired as to the authority for the sale, the Secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs replied that the reserve had been exempted from the surrender requirement through an Order in Council. The Secretary then wrote to the Department’s solicitor, ordering him to prepare that Order in Council, to apply retroactively. That was never done. That is, there was an illegal sale, followed by a lie, followed by an attempted cover-up.

As for the St. Croix Reserve, the Department of Indian Affairs simply transferred it to New Brunswick in 1944. A formal Peskotomuhkati claim about the two reserves was made to the Government of Canada in 2012. In 2014, the Peskotomuhkati Council asked New Brunswick to return the St. Croix and Canoose Reserves.

In 2006, the Government of Canada stated that before it would recognize the Peskotomuhkati Nation in Canada, or begin any negotiations, the Peskotomuhkati would have to satisfy Canada that they had been an “organized society” during the previous eighty years. In 2007, the Peskotomuhkati Council produced a history, Peskotomuhkati Journey. This was not enough. Canada insisted that a professional researcher be hired. The Council engaged the services of Joan Holmes Associates. Their 230-page report concluded:

The commonly cited belief that all the Peskotomuhkati moved to the United States is not supported by the documentation. Rather, the evidence of both the census records to 1911 (the latest year available) and an examination of the family histories of some of the Peskotomuhkati Recognition Group members show that cross-border intermarriage was common in the late 19th to 20th centuries. Major families have branches that established themselves on the American reserves, while other branches stayed on the Canadian side; some people with both Canadian and American roots became firmly and exclusively established in New Brunswick by the early 20th century. 1

In 1951, a new Indian Act required the compilation of band lists and general lists containing the name of each Indian in Canada. The Holmes Report explains:

No Peskotomuhkati band list was ever created: nor was a Peskotomuhkati band recognized under the Indian Act… The Peskotomuhkati had never had a treaty list or annuity paylist (there were no payments due under treaty in their region), nor did any interest distribution paylists exist for them. In addition, they did not have a reserve and therefore no lists existed for the purpose of elections or other administrative functions. Departmental correspondence regarding the Canous and St. Croix Reserves shows that officials had assumed that no Peskotomuhkati remained in New Brunswick as of the 1930s. As has been documented above, this was an erroneous assumption. 2

…until at least the middle of the 20th century there was strong continuity between the historical and modern-day Peskotomuhkati in New Brunswick within the limitations imposed by being vastly outnumbered by a non-Native population and being without the security of a discrete land base. This continuity appears to have been weakened in the period from around the 1960s to 1990. Peskotomuhkati extended families became isolated from other Peskotomuhkati both within New Brunswick and across the border in Maine. In the last two decades, the Peskotomuhkati in New Brunswick have been reviving their cultural practices and customs, including re-instating a chief and council, participating in political and cultural activities with other Aboriginal groups who have accepted them as Peskotomuhkati of New Brunswick, and reclaiming language and other cultural activities. Throughout the whole latter half of the 20th century they tried to continue traditional resource harvesting practices; however, the ability to do so was curtailed by factors outside of their control. In conclusion, continuity between modern-day Peskotomuhkati and the historical Peskotomuhkati as an identifiable people on their traditional territory is indisputable. 3

On January 19, 2016, the federal cabinet met in St. Andrews. Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett met Sakom Hugh Akagi and Councillor Rita Fraser. She confirmed she would be seeking a mandate from the Governor General in Council to begin comprehensive negotiations with the Peskotomuhkati Nation. She also promised to fulfill the commitment made to Hugh Akagi by Minister Andy Scott in 2005: the Department would do all in its power to secure the recognition of the Peskotomuhkati people in Canada pursuant to the Indian Act.

  1. Joan Holmes Associates, The Passamaquoddy in Canada: 1920 to Present March, 2014, p. 5.
  2. Ibid, p. 133.
  3. Ibid. p. 187.