Passamaquoddy Honor Ancestors Who Made Ultimate Sacrifice

Dwayne Tomah hands Jack Tomahqaha Downing the sacred food prepared for the ancestors. (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson


Passamaquoddy tribal members gathered for Natahsomane Ntolonapemonuk (Let’s feed our relatives) on Friday, September 21st, ceremonially sharing food with ancestors that lived the last days of their lives on Muwinuwi Monihk (Gordon’s Island) to stop the spread of contagious diseases brought by Europeans. Many tribal members regard the sacrifice of those who perished and were subsequently buried on the island as being one of the key reasons that the tribe persists today.

Prior to departing for the island from Muwin Park in Motahkomikuk (Indian Township), the group welcomed the arrival of the Warrior Runners, who carried a sacred staff and additional offerings from Sipayik (Pleasant Point). They were met with drumming and cheers as they made their way through the assembled group, which included many youths. Chief William Nicholas thanked the runners for their efforts, noting that without their journey and its willingly undertaken hardships, the gathering would not have been able to take place.

The theme of sacrifice and unity permeated the event, which was joined by members of the St. Andrews-based Schoodic Band of Passamaquoddy. Sipayik Chief Marla Dana, who recently made history as the first elected female chief of the Passamaquoddy, emphasized the need to set aside past divisions.

Elder Joan Dana led a prayer to all four directions, with each member of the tribe turning in unison.

Dwayne Tomah recounted the devastating effects of small pox and a host of other deadly diseases on the Abenaki, beginning with early contact in the 1500s with European fishermen. After the early spread of small pox, influenza, typhus and other diseases, the Eastern population of the Abenaki – including the Passamaquoddy – was reduced by 75 percent. Year after year, decade after decade, epidemics swept the tribe, further reducing their numbers. “After another century of war and disease, there were less than 1,000 Abenaki remaining at the American Revolution,” Tomah said. While the Abenaki have since recovered to 12,000 in number on both sides of the border, Tomah noted that they have not received federal recognition as a cohesive tribe.

Despite the tribe’s ongoing challenges, Tomah exulted in its continued survival. “We are still here… We have overcome all the odds by unity. Coming together as one people.”

The reality of what the tribe’s survival involved was inescapably present as Chief Nicholas spoke. “We lost many, many people to smallpox – a disease that almost killed us off here. With very little alternatives for helping our people other than to separate them. Most of them wanted to be able to go. But not all.”

Tribal historian Donald Soctomah shared the memory of the day in 2002 when Domtar returned the island to the tribe and the ceremony that followed. “We finally came back to our ancestors that are buried on that island,” Soctomah said. “They died so the rest of us could survive. They died so that the disease of small pox couldn’t spread to the survivors.”

The Passamaquoddy story of Muwinuwi Monihk was kept alive in the tribe through its elders, as Soctomah pointed out. He thanked Delia Mitchell, Jimmy Mitchell, Mary Gabriel and Joan Dana for telling and retelling the story so that it would never be forgotten.

Approximately 100 tribal members and their guests then set out for the island in canoes, pontoon boats, and motor boats, testing their determination against low temperatures, clouded skies, and high winds. Among those making the trip was Jack Tomahqaha Downing, a young man who bore a bundle of sacred food to be presented to the ancestors of the island. The trip and the offering were symbolic of thousands of such voyages undertaken by the Passamaquoddy as they brought their sickness-laden brethren food every single day to prevent their starvation.


At the island, in the shelter of tall trees, upon a ground that exuded quiet serenity, the group assembled once more. “When people come together, things happen,” Tomah said. “We made this happen, each and every one of us, by being here today. There’s unity in this circle today. I feel the unity in this circle. And the respect that we’re paying to our people. To all people.”