(The following article, under the title “More cultural storytelling in Peskotomuhkatik” was penned by Rachel Bryant, author of The Homing Place: Indigenous and Settler Literary Legacies of the Atlantic. It was originally published on her website on September 21st, 2019 and is reproduced here with her kind permission.)
This morning brought a new piece by one of my favourite local authors, Julia Wright — one about Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, which apparently concludes with a scene on Campobello Island, a Canadian island that is connected by bridge to the state of Maine at the entrance of the Passamaquoddy Bay.
From Wright’s piece:
Kate Johnston, manager of marketing and visitor services at Roosevelt Campobello International Park, which preserves the summer home of late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family, called the literary salute “pretty cool.”
. . .
“Margaret Atwood has been pretty upfront about the fact that she is inspired by the events that have been happening in the United States.”
“Campobello is such an interesting place — so Canadian, but at the same time it has such a tie to the United States.”
McLean said that in the context of the plot, Campobello Island is the “perfect” setting for the novel’s conclusion.
The Testaments is not on my immediate to-read list, but I find these ideas very interesting, and I can’t help but wonder whether Atwood’s plot, and the mythologies upon which it presumably rests, engages or further obscures the actual place currently called Campobello.
Campobello is home to Friar’s Rock (or Skitap Man Rock), a “rock formation” on the sea coast that has “a Romeo and Juliet style story attached to it.” This story is from Passamaquoddy oral tradition, and you can read a version of it, as told by Donald Soctomah, in Siobhan Senier’s Dawnland Voices anthology. I am currently teaching an Indigenous Literatures course at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, and I carefully walked my students through this story in class just last week.
In Soctomah’s telling, Campobello is not a fragment of New Brunswick or an island on the margin of Canada but rather a Passamaquoddy summer village where Passamaquoddy people have been gathering for thousands of years. Over the course of some of these summers, a young girl named Sipsis and a boy named Posu fall in love, but each winter they retreat to their respective families’ hunting camps. As Sipsis and Posu grow older, their families begin to notice and disapprove of their summer bond, and Sipsis is sent to live on an island across the bay. For every year after, Sipsis and Posu gaze longingly across the water, dreaming of one another.
Years passed and time flew by; they each called to Gloscap to grant them a wish, and both asked that their love would last through eternity. He heard their songs of love and felt their passion, but their families did all they could to prevent this. One day Posu was walking along the shore and suddenly his wish was granted: he had become a large rock in the shape of a man looking across the Bay, and Sipsis on the shore of the other island at the same instant also became a large rock in the shape of a woman; she too was looking across the Bay to her love. Forever they would look across the Bay to each other as symbols of true love. (p. 179)
The Sipsis rock is on what some today call Moose Island, Maine; the rock is called Pilsqehsis Woman Rock. Here is a Google map image of how Campobello and Moose islands are situated in the bay:
One island in Maine, another in New Brunswick. One rock formation in Gilead, one in Canada. But both islands are actually in Peskotomuhkatik, which is Passamaquoddy territory, home of the Passamaquoddy tribal nation. I have written elsewhere about how Canada and the United States (or northern Maine and southwestern New Brunswick) are violent impositions on Peskotomuhkatik. The borderline that non-Indigenous people drew through this territory after the American Revolution effectively clarified the spheres of dominance for two resource-hungry settler colonial societies but it failed to actually rupture this territory, where Passamaquoddy people have lived for centuries, where the rocks tell their own love stories, and where people and place are inseparable despite any and all artificially imposed divisions.
And so we, Settler people, are again telling stories about Peskotomuhkatik.
But what stories are we telling about this land and what it represents, and who are we to tell them? Do our stories actually have anything to do with Peskotomuhkatik, a place where Indigenous people have an average life expectancy of forty-eight years, or are we once again using Passamaquoddy land to tell our own stories about settler colonial political culture or about the supposed differences between Canadians and Americans? Historically, the stories that we have told about this place have been much louder in our shared public discourse than the stories of this place itself. I hope questions of Passamaquoddy cultural and territorial sovereignty do not get lost in conversations about Atwood’s widely anticipated new novel.
Rachel Bryant is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in K’jipuktuk. She spends most of her time in Menahkwesk/Saint John with her partner and their children.