April 07, 2020

Maine Coast Heritage Trust purchase restores Machias Bay shore land to tribe

MACHIASPORT – Joanne Dana, a Passamaquoddy tribal elder, had a vision years ago.

“I was to be there when the sun came up,” she said Monday, describing her premonition. “I was facing the east. I was given a rock to place in front of me. Then the sun opened the door, and the petroglyphs were there.

“I didn’t know that was about today. What a beautiful experience.”

Moments earlier, Dana and Martin Francis had stood together on the ledge at high tide where their Passamaquoddy ancestors had carved pictures into the rocks as long as 3,000 years ago.

As Blanche Sockabasin played the drum and sang from the shore, Dana and Francis performed a sacred ritual with a pipe, burning sage, the wing of a golden eagle, and gifts of food and water for the ancestors.

Timelessly, the Passamaquoddy were standing on tribal land once again.

The transfer of about 5.5 acres of shorefront on Machias Bay back to the Passamaquoddy was celebrated Monday. About 200 people looked on – tribal elders, tribal youth and friends from the community who had an appreciation for the moment.

The land – called the Picture Rocks site – changed hands Friday, when the Maine Coast Heritage Trust purchased the property for an undisclosed amount from Ann Thompson Gommers and Peter Gommers.

The trust then gave the land to the Passamaquoddy in return for a no-development conservation easement on 300 acres of nearby Passamaquoddy-owned land. That parcel has frontage on Moose Snare Cove, about two miles from Picture Rocks.

The new easement expands to more than 1,000 acres the protected lands around Little Kennebec Bay.

The exact location of the petroglyphs is a well-kept secret, known only to the Passamaquoddy, historians and academics. There are nine known sites of petroglyphs around Machias Bay, and Picture Rocks is considered the most significant.

“The Passamaquoddy now own this, as of Friday,” said Jay Espy, president of the trust. “This is the key piece. This resource now will be protected forever and ever.”

Getting the land back to the Passamaquoddy has taken close to three years.

“Everything had to line up right,” said Ann Gommers, who with her husband was part of the ceremony of transfer and thanks.

Gommers’ parents purchased the nearby house and 6 acres in the early 1960s. Her mother was especially protective of the petroglyphs. In 1977 she worked with Mark Hedden and the Maine State Museum to catalog the petroglyphs and record them through surface rubbings.

Hedden, who stood quietly amid the crowd in a light rain, was recognized Monday for his work that, over nearly 30 years, has made him the state’s foremost expert in the rock art.

The carvings in shale were left behind by the Passamaquoddy, who have lived in eastern Maine and western New Brunswick for more than 10,000 years. The designs depict animals, humans and spirits.

Only two other petroglyph locations are known in Maine. One covers a ledge on the Kennebec River in Embden. Other carvings have been found on ledges along Grand Lake Stream.

The Machias Bay locations have been studied over the last three years by two University of Maine at Machias professors, Bernie Vinzani and Mike Kimball.

Their students of art and anthropology have learned that visiting the tidal site means removing one’s shoes and socks to walk on the rocks. It is done for the practical reason of keeping out grit, but also to show respect for the Passamaquoddy past.

Vinzani and Kimball have been working with the tribe, within a bigger committee, to arrange for the return of the site to the Passamaquoddy.

The Gommerses wanted nothing more than to shape a transfer that will forever protect the petroglyphs.

Summer visitors for years, they moved in June from Massachusetts to live at the Machiasport house full time. The sale of the property does not include the house, where they will continue to live.

“We are thrilled,” Ann Gommers said of Monday’s celebration. “This is sacred land. There is a very powerful spirit here, as if it is the most peaceful place on earth.”

Brenda Commander, chief of Maine’s Maliseet tribe, came from Houlton for the occasion.

“Today will help all Wabanaki tribes to sustain and nurture the spiritual and cultural heritage of our people,” Commander told Rick Doyle, chief of the Pleasant Point reservation.

In honor of the land transfer, Doyle presented both the Gommerses and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust with Passamaquoddy baskets.

In turn, Peter Gommers, a photographer, gave framed prints of the picture rocks to the trust and the tribe. Ann Gommers presented a framed copy of one of her mother’s surface rubbings to Doyle.

Doyle turned over the print to the seventh-graders of the Beatrice Rafferty School at Pleasant Point, who had arrived at the ceremony in two busloads.

“The school can display it proudly and share it with all our children,” Doyle said.

Donald Soctomah, the tribe’s historian, visited the school several months ago to describe the petroglyph preservation project.

With his help, the seventh-grade class became the organizers of Monday’s event.

They arranged for a sweat lodge, the smudging ceremony by Dana and Sockabasin, and a Thunderhead dance performed by Dwayne Sockabasin and Adam Bailey.

“I’m surprised we still can have this land,” said Krysti Longfellow, 13, one of the students who welcomed the guests to the ceremony. “It’s very important. It’s part of our history.”

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