The recent presence of drug gangs in the area has spurred on an effort at Pleasant Point to openly discuss drug and alcohol abuse among tribal members and to bring back the Passamaquoddy Tribe's traditions and cultural values to help address the social challenges. The building of a traditional longhouse will be the first step in that process.
In May, law enforcement officers had confirmed the arrival of out-of-state, inner-city drug trafficking gangs in Washington County communities. "People came into out communities who were not from around here, and they were real, and people were scared," says Brenda Moore- Mitchell, who began the newly formed Community Concerns group at Sipayik. Noting that the gangs even reached out to someone in tribal government, she says, "Everyone was talking about it." She says the drug gang members "camped out in someone's house and were refusing to leave until they got their money."
Concerning the extent of the substance abuse issue, she says, "I think just about every home on the reservation is affected," directly or indirectly. "You know somebody that has an alcohol or drug problem."
She says she realized that she was "tired of how things are going, and we need to change it. We need to set an example. We need to do something for our community."
On June 11, Moore-Mitchell invited people to come and share their stories and to listen because of "the number of drug-addicted deaths" in the community. She says it's a grassroots group of people "who want to heal their community." While the group is open to anyone, sensitive issues about substance abuse are discussed during the meetings, so the meetings are kept confidential. "We're making it safe for them" to speak by keeping the discussion confined to the meetings, she says.
"A lot of different people come. They want a place to go and say stuff and have a safe place to speak," she notes. When someone first comes to a meeting and breaks the silence about substance abuse, the experience can be quite emotional, but Moore-Mitchell observes that it also can be a healing experience.
The group now meets every Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Nation Grounds. If the weather is bad, the meeting is held at the Waponahki Museum. She says the initiative is being well-supported by entities including the tribal government, health center and housing authority.
The longhouse will be the group's first step toward renewing Passamaquoddy traditions and building a place for tribal members to meet and perform ceremonies. Work on the longhouse project began on August 6.
"We have to build our foundation again," Moore-Mitchell says, starting with a longhouse to share a spirituality with the community and to build upon that. The nation house will be there for alcohol- and drug-free activities, and traditional ceremonies, including weddings, sweat lodges and meetings of the Wabanaki Confederacy, will be held there. "We hope to bring back things that may have been forgotten," such as wampum readings. "People need to get grounded in something again," she says, "or they go through life without a belief system." The longhouse will be there "for those who want to believe in something for the good."
She notes that tribal members who return from prison or a rehabilitation center may want to come back to a healthier and safe place and not fall into substance abuse habits with "the old crowd" again. "It's easy to fall into old habits if the support is not there," she observes.
Vera Francis, community planner for the tribe, says, "This is a great opportunity for tribal members to come together to construct a longhouse, strengthen community and build hope."
Maggie Dana, who is spearheading the longhouse effort, has long envisioned a place where people can celebrate cultural ways and renew a sense of pride. "I see the longhouse as a medicine our community needs. Our people are struggling with their identity and dealing with historical generational trauma. We need this for our people, so we can come together and heal."
"The longhouse will be a safe place for us to speak our language, have talking circles, ceremonies, sing songs and dance. This will help us to reconnect with who we once were before colonization. It was and always will be the spirit and medicine of our homeland, Sipayik."
Although the longhouse will be the group's first project, Moore-Mitchell notes, "There's much that people want," including a teen center and a place for substance abuse rehab. Different segments of the group that has been meeting will focus on various areas -- for youths, adults and cultural activities. "Other things will fall in place," she says.
Moore-Mitchell says the Community Concerns group is just one spoke on a wheel, along with other groups that have been started, including the Sipayik Revitalization Team and the Sipayik Restorative Justice and Healing Commission. All of the groups have been formed by volunteers who "want to make things better," she says. "It's right from the heart."