On Wednesday evening at the Curtis Memorial Library, the Midcoast Indigenous Awareness Group (MIAG) hosted a panel discussion entitled “Many Voices: Who Gets to Tell the Story?” The panelists discussed the often erased history of the Wabanaki people and how to acknowledge their continued role in the Brunswick community. The talk was sparked by an ongoing debate about a mural project by Brunswick Public Art (BPA) that some community members contend does not represent the complex Indigenous histories of the area now known as Brunswick.
In early 2022, BPA announced its plan to install a 1,400 square-foot mural on the wall of Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill. Panelist Steve Weems, treasurer of the BPA and the mural’s project manager, stated on Wednesday that the mural, entitled “Many Stitches,” has the goal of celebrating the Mill’s value to the community as well as the racial and ethnic diversity of the Brunswick community.
However, following BPA’s release of the mural design, Brunswick community members—specifically those in the Wabanaki community—have expressed discontent with the design’s failure to portray the Wabanaki’s painful yet foundational role in Brunswick’s history and the proliferation of colonialist attitudes from non-indigenous people in the area. Critics argue that the mural’s placement of a white figure above non-white figures, as well as its omission of the historic Indigenous use of the river, converge to create a harmful historical narrative.
Panelist Mihku Paul, a Maliseet poet, visual artist and activist of the Kingsclear First Nations, emphasized the impact that constructed public spaces have in shaping who is considered to be part of a community.
“Public spaces are there for our celebration, and part of their function is to connect us. But, we cannot be connected if there are people who are consistently absent from that space,” Paul said. “It’s not enough to say, ‘This can occur in a college or it can occur in a museum.’ I mean, I don’t live in a museum. I live in a community. So I really urge you to think carefully about what community means and how public spaces, including the public art that we all experience, can function to connect us all.”
The Wabanaki members of the panel expressed their frustration with the “eleventh hour consultation”: the recurring experience of their opinions on important projects only being sought out at the last minute, as if they are an afterthought or token. Panelist James E. Francis, Sr., Director of Penobscot Cultural and Historic Preservation and member of the Penobscot Nation, expressed that true inclusion occurs when Indigenous perspectives are incorporated and valued from the beginning of any endeavor.
“What I want—my goal of the evening—is to convince the people [behind] this mural to hit the reset button, bring Indigenous people to the table at the beginning—not at the eleventh hour—and rethink this project and do what’s right for the people of Brunswick and the Indigenous people who live here and who have been from here,” Francis said.
The three Indigenous panelists went on to discuss how the history of both longstanding colonialism and more immediate tokenism affected how they approached these conversations of representation. Panelist Heather Augustine, the Education Coordinator for Wabanaki REACH and member of the Mi’kmaq Nation, underscored how establishing deeper relationships can strengthen genuine collaboration.
“Our land, our children, our language, our stories—they’ve all been extracted for us,” Augustine said. “I just feel like, ‘Oh, here’s an opportunity for me to show up.’ [Then] I’m either a token or I’m just going to be extracted from my ideas and my dreams and my thoughts and my statements. And then I’m sort of void of the project. And so I think a lot of the work happens through building relationships, too. So [that] we want to join and collaborate on a project. So we want to be a part of public art.”
After the panelists spoke, the audience had the opportunity for questions and comments. Audience member Alexis Mullen ’23 asked Weems why the mural was still moving forward with such finality after the community expressed the pain caused by the design.
“The short answer is … we’re out of any resource that was called together to do that project and we have [to meet the] expectations of those that have provided the funding to put up the project,” Weems said. “We have contractual obligations as well. We have an obligation to the artists who are creating the work to let them finish and pay them.”
Reflecting on the event, Mullen was disappointed by the BPA’s response to the perspectives shared at the discussion.
“I felt really frustrated hearing what was being said and offered in response to the concerns that were voiced by the Wabanaki people,” Mullen said in an interview with the Orient. “It seemed like [BPA] was dancing around the fact that they had decided that they weren’t going to do anything more to change this piece of art and that they were going to go ahead and finish it without a reimagining of what it might be.”
While the original design of the mural was slightly modified this past summer based on community feedback to include canoes on the river, dissatisfaction from the community has not ceased. BPA still plans on installing the mural next summer.
“It’s really important when we’re putting out pieces of art … to be really conscientious of what kind of stories we’re telling,” Mullen said to the Orient. “How can we come together as a community to find the time and money to transform this mural project into something that the Wabanaki people do not feel disrespected by or disappointed in?”