The Working Waterfront

Let’s return to a native view of resources

Wabanaki model worked for 12,000 years

By Sara Freshley
Posted 2023-09-21
Last Modified 2023-09-21

The Wabanaki nations have an excellent history of sustainable resource management. Before colonizers dominated the resources of this area in the 1600s, the Wabanakis had lived here for 12,000 years, self-regulating their consumption and relationships to the land and one another.

In a fraction of that time, the society that colonizers brought to these shores manifested a tragedy of the commons in mere generations. It’s a tragedy we live in today.

We live in an economy that relies on people consuming goods for survival instead of relying on one another. Society has drastically changed from one of community living to one of individualism. This has caused resource depletion, poverty, and climate change.

In this individualistic society which we have built, we cannot trust one another to take only what we need.

Instead of embracing and sharing the Wabanaki people’s way of life, we dismissed it as wrong and shunned them. Despite this, the Wabanaki people are rooted firmly on this land and it is time that living descendants of colonizers listen to them.

Government regulation and oversight have been our answer to preventing resource depletion. In this individualistic society which we have built, we cannot trust one another to take only what we need, therefore regulation is necessary.

Sara Freshley
Sara Freshley

The Wabanaki people have resided on this land for so long in part due to a community mindset—community that extends to the surrounding ecosystem.

Instead of seeing nature as a commodity, the Wabanaki recognize that we are a part of nature. Instead of learning from the original stewards of this land, colonizers have continuously silenced the Wabanaki people, believing that our way of life is the only way; as if it has to be one or the other.

Despite this, there are examples outside of the Wabanaki where people have embraced successful resource regulation without government oversight. The Maine lobster industry began marking egg-bearing females with a V-notch in their tails in the early 1900s. This mark lasts several molts, allowing the female to hatch and raise potentially thousands of lobsters.

Conservationists applaud this method and many credit it as a reason the lobster industry remains a critical economic driver for Maine. This system puts the power in the hands of the people.

While I cannot speak for the Wabanaki people and do not know the depth and details of their way of life, I do know that they have survived with the land for so long, in part because they prioritize the community over the individual, they consider future generations in their decisions, and they understand that to survive, the ecosystem needs to thrive.

Imagine the wealth of success stories if we respected the Wabanaki nations as partners instead of subjects. Suppose we embraced instead of dismissed their way of life.

The Wabanaki nations have lived on the banks of what we now call Moosehead Lake, the shores of what we now call Casco Bay, and in the forests of what we now call Baxter State Park for 12,000 years.

They have survived off the lobster, the trout, and the deer long before scientists created quotas and the government’s required permits. The Wabanaki Nation takes care of the land, and the land takes care of them.

It is well past time that the descendants of colonizers, who live here as a result of Wabanaki genocide, recognize the Wabanaki people for what they are, a sovereign nation that knows how to not only survive but thrive. The first step is to listen.

Sara Freshley grew up in Maine, has a bachelor’s degree in marine science, and a law degree in environmental law and policy. She works as community organizer for Friends of Casco Bay and serves on the Maine Conservation Alliance and Voters Boards.