Restoring Balance with the Earth: Eastern Woodlands Rematriation

Medicines gathered by Wabanaki herbalism apprentices at Penobscot Nation. Photo by June Sapiel (Penobscot).

Now more than ever, centering Indigenous food systems and restoring kinship is necessary to save our planet and the most vulnerable communities from the devastating effects of climate change. To that end, Eastern Woodlands Rematriation (EWR) is working to sustain the spiritual foundation of our livelihoods through Indigenous food and agroecological systems. Our projects are rooted in the reclamation of healthy food, wild medicines, and traditional knowledge through exchange, mutual aid, and apprenticeship within Tribal territories of the Northeast. We focus on local infrastructure needs of their various food cultivation spaces with the goal of building capacity through trust and care to others.
 

Led entirely by Indigenous womxn and Two-Spirits, EWR aims to be non-exploitative and regenerative. We believe the process of rematriation supports the expression of our power from within; this expression is reciprocal and in generosity to our relatives. Yet this balanced way of life has been violently tested, limited, and stripped away from our womxn, Two-Spirits, and youth. The trauma of surviving more than 400 years of colonization and genocide has manifested through lateral violence, partner abuse, and high rates of substance abuse and suicide in many of our communities. What we desperately need as womxn and Two-Spirits are spaces to heal, organize, and strategize on ways to escape the colonial systems that are designed to keep us oppressed, unhealthy, and disconnected from the earth and our way of life. In a matriarchal framework, power becomes transformative. Rematriation re-powers our people and allows us to remember that we have what it takes to live healthy, balanced lives. By centering Indigenous womxn and Two-Spirits as medicine people, midwives, and food producers, we are rematriating our food and economic systems in a way that’s more resilient and just.

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Families harvesting reclaimed white flint corn in the Assabet region of Nipmuc homelands. Photo by Kristen Wyman (Natick Nipmuc).
 

The projects EWR carries out take place throughout New England. In the north, we work with the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamquoddy, and Penobscot Peoples and families; in the south, we work with Nipmuc, Wampanoag, Massachusett, Narragansett, and Mohegan Peoples and families, as well as urban, mobile, and displaced Native people. One of our primary projects is the Wabanaki Herbalism Apprenticeship Program, which aims to foster exchange, dialogue, and sharing of knowledge of Indigenous health practices with the long-term goal of developing a Tribal community apothecary and trained traditional birth and death practitioners who can serve local communities. By training and convening healers in our communities, we are building and reclaiming ancestral knowledge and making non-pharmaceutical health more accessible while reducing our reliance on pharmaceuticals. The apothecary is a space where we can deliberately assure the continuance of traditional healers.
 

Given that the apothecary plays such an essential role in the community, expanding the number of trained individuals who understand Indigenous medicine through the Apprenticeship Program was the logical next step. In it, participants learned about plant identification and harvest, cultural relationships with plants, making medicines and clinical application, along with home first aid, maternal health, prevention, and recovery. Since receiving the Keepers of the Earth Fund grant, Eastern Woodlands Rematriation has trained 12 apprentices; our 1-year apprenticeship concluded at the beginning of May. Apprentices continue studying and gathering medicines to begin by first building their home apothecary, and second, a community apothecary to share among kin networks.

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Families harvesting wild blueberries in Nipmuc homelands of Western Massachusetts. Photo by Marcy Hendricks (Mashpee Wampanoag).

In addition, EWR has held multiple intensive sessions about food and land access grounded in spirituality and values of rematriation. These have included medicinal gatherings and teachings at our homes, reservation, and sites of cultural significance; the building of a home and community apothecaries; and a Roots and Barks Medicinal Session, which drew participation from prospective apprentices from southern New England. Members created an inter-Tribal herbal medicine donation list to address the needs of the communities we work with, which include resources for maternal health, anxiety/depression, culturally significant medicines, and prevention. We also share medicines for tea and salves with womxn of southern New England.
 

“What is most beautiful about how far we have come in this grant period is the interaction we are witnessing among womxn and Two-Spirits from different Tribal communities in the Northeast, and the ways members are building with each other and offering their own unique gifts and power for the betterment of EWR and all of our respective families, kin, and homelands,” says co-founder Kristen Wyman (Natick Nipmuc). “Many Tribes are conditioned to be siloed, to focus only on their community, or in the case of many fed Tribes, to focus only on other federally recognized Tribes. Oftentimes, this leaves out families and individuals who have relocated for various reasons and aren’t directly being serviced by their Tribal governments, are living in urban areas, and/or state recognized Tribes who hold important knowledge and continue defending land but are often left out of decision making and social political spaces. To see this level of grassroots organizing and exercise of self-determination among Indigenous womxn and Two-Spirits is really inspiring.” Co-founder Nia Holley (Nipmuc) adds, “Unfortunately with COVID-19, it’s more and more clear how the system we’re in does not acknowledge our humanity.”
 

Wyman explains that Eastern Woodlands Rematriation has developed programs to adapt to the current crisis, “given how COVID-19 has amplified the struggles Indigenous communities already face. Since mid-March we have been hosting weekly community care sessions offered to our member families and Indigenous kin networks. Each week is either focused on food as medicine or as a space for participants to speak about their experiences and find community.” The group is also strengthening their mutual aid response for Tribal families by surveying members and identifying their needs, as well as distributing seeds, seedlings, remedies, and produce from Maine to Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island. This involvement on a regional level is critical; as cofounder Alivia Moore (Penobscot) says, “Our local struggles are also connected to regional struggles across our Tribal communities.”

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Eastern Woodlands Rematriation plans to continue its apprenticeship program by formally offering two-year apprentice opportunities to members in southern New England. We will also be creating opportunities for youth to engage in apothecary development and herbalism as part of a substance abuse prevention program. Over the past year, we have succeeded in promoting a balanced approach toward medicine, healing, and food and economic systems. Despite the challenges COVID-19 poses to vulnerable communities, which include Indigenous Peoples, EWR is working hard to meet the many urgent needs of its members while continuing to plan our future work and progress toward enriching individuals, our kin networks, and our planet.

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