A Conversation on Land Conservation with Donald Soctomah

Donald Soctomah is Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Passamaquoddy Tribe. He was born in 1955 within the aboriginal homeland of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. After receiving his undergraduate degree in forestry from the University of Maine at Orono in 1984, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service out of the West Virginia Office, serving seven states around the country. In 1989, he returned to Washington County to work for the Passamaquoddy Tribal Forestry Department in various capacities.

An author, filmmaker, and historian, Soctomah was elected to serve as Tribal Representative to the Maine House of Representatives for eight years and later worked as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. Soctomah has authored several children’s books and history books. He is also a frequent consultant on historic and educational projects around the Northeast and has worked to inventory Passamaquoddy place names in Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.

Tell me about your history working with land trusts in Maine

When I served as Tribal Representative, one of the pieces of legislation I passed had to do with funds for Land for Maine’s Future, which allows conservation groups to access state money to buy land based on archaeological value and tribal concerns. I started working with land trusts to get their support for the legislation. That passed. A lot of the groups looked at that as another way to protect different cultural concerns and use the funds as a source of revenue to protect land.

How does your work as Passamaquoddy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer intersect with land conservation?

A major part of my job is to protect native artifacts, native concerns, and native culture. Several federal laws were enacted to give the tribes a voice on land use. For any project in the State that receives federal money, I get a copy of the work plan and make comments on it. So if it concerns tribal culture and may impact rich sources of history we get involved. Many times, I work with archaeological firms to conduct archaeological digs. I’ve worked cooperatively with Maine Coast Heritage Trust to address cultural concerns on MCHT lands.

What is your understanding of how and why Maine Coast Heritage Trust conserves land?

I think MCHT thinks about the natural beauty and the people resource that land holds, but also the cultural aspect. Many conservation groups have started to look at the cultural value of land and the impact of not protecting these special sites.

What do you think is the value of land conservation?

The Tribe is worried about the whole coastline being taken over by oil refineries, gas terminals, communities—because for us this means we lose a major part of our culture. We need to have that interaction, that relationship, with special sites along the coast for our culture and our spirituality. It’s hard to interact with nature when there’s houses and development all around you.

I like to look at the big picture, how things make the circle, how things seem to happen in patterns. If you look 100 years into the future, there are going to be people moving to the coast, and there are going to be these spots of green, these special places, and people will look back and say, “Let’s see how that happened.” Now is the time to protect as much as possible.

The word “place” comes up a lot in land conservation. What is the significance of place in your life?

Other cultures have churches, but our spirituality is experienced in being in Nature’s Place. That aspect people don’t really talk about too much. Place is built into our DNA.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe is working on a language immersion project for children, and had a psychologist talk to teachers about how the effects of trauma—the things that the Tribe has gone through over all these years, the loss of spirituality—are passed down through genes.

Learning the language is a healing process. You see a calmness come over the kids. They’re starting to look at things differently. They’re not just looking at a tree as an object with leaves, now they see tree as life, and that the tree sustains other animals, insects, oxygen—they’re looking at the whole process through the language. So, Place and Language go hand in hand.

In other words, if you lose access to the land, you lose access to a great deal more than just the land.

For many thousands of years, stories are based on the land around the area. If land is lost, the spirit’s lost, and the future, as far as I can see. And people need these quiet places, just to get in touch with themselves, to get in touch with their culture—any culture. Go far back enough, and in one way or another every person is rooted in an indigenous culture.

What do you hope for the coast for the next 50 years?

I hope the coastal area receives more protection. This coastline is disappearing with the rising ocean. In the last ten years I’ve seen the coastline lose one foot, two feet, three feet—some places even up to five feet. Currents and storms are changing. I hope that this coastline is still here because this is reflective of all of us and will impact all humankind.

This piece is part of Voices from the Coast, a collection of writing, art, stories, and images offered in celebration of the Maine coast and launched in 2020, Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s 50th year.