08 August 2006

Panamanian Indians Sail to Meet American Indians

Primitive past, fragile future
Across a vast distance, two tribes share a bond

Friday, August 04, 2006 - Bangor Daily News

HAMPDEN - The two narrow dugout canoes wobbled in the deep water, but didn't tip as the paddlers approached their brothers sitting afloat in traditional, handcrafted birch bark canoes.

In the rear of each dugout, a tattooed man of the Chocoe tribe, wearing a loincloth, stood and paddled, while a Chocoe woman, dressed in a bright cloth skirt and bandeau top, crouched in each bow.

The Chocoe Indians are used to maneuvering the canoes, also known as piraguas, or pirogues, in the shallow waters of their village, Mogue, in the Darien rain forest of Panama, not the deeper water of the Penobscot.

As the Chocoes and Penobscots met in a historic moment on the dark water of the river, the canoes and dugouts turned and headed toward a large vessel.

The members of the Chocoe tribe were paddling alongside the Pajaro Jai, a 92-foot wooden ketch that they handcrafted, to meet members of the Penobscot Indian Nation who were paddling downriver in two of their own traditional birch bark canoes.

The crew of the Pajaro Jai, whose name means "enchanted bird," has traveled from Panama and is meeting with indigenous people all over the world. In addition to the Penobscots, tribal historian Donald Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Pleasant Point also went on board the ketch Thursday and presented the Chocoes with traditional gifts.

The purpose of the Chocoes' voyage is to bring attention to conservation efforts and the dilemma of the region's indigenous people to create a self-sustainable future for themselves.

The Pajaro Jai will be moored at the Waterfront Marina in Hampden today and is expected to be in Maine for the next few days. The tribal members have no set plans for touring the state.

The sound of traditional drums being played by both tribes echoed across the water as the Penobscot Indian Nation Boys and Girls Club girl drummers chanted and sang from a nearby pontoon boat and the Chocoes sang and drummed on the Pajaro Jai's deck.

Listening to the drums and watching the two tribes meet in the river, Jim Brunton of Westport, Conn., founder of the Pajaro Jai Foundation, searched for a way to describe the moment.

"Does this get you in the gut?" he asked. "It gets me in the gut."

There was something primitive and extraordinary about the meeting of the two tribes, who live thousands of miles from each other but have much in common.

"We never thought we'd find other indigenous people like ourselves so far from home," Brunton said, translating for Chocoe member Nilsa Caisamo when members of both tribes met Thursday afternoon at Indian Island.

The two tribes talked about their environmental concerns, and the Penobscots shared ways that they themselves monitor the water quality of the area.

"We try to keep an eye on the companies that are discharging toxins into the water," Penobscot Chief James Sappier said.

"They are hoping to gain that kind of control of their area," Brunton said of the Chocoes. "They did have it, but it's slipping away."

Most important, Sappier stressed the importance of working with other tribes in the area.

"We have to work together," Sappier said. "If we don't work together, the government will suppress us."

One of the Chocoes' main goals is to create a marketplace for themselves, where they can sell baskets and hand-carved furniture that they make in Mogue.

Brunton's plan for the future includes bringing satellite equipment to the area to give the tribe Internet access.

"If they can build this boat," Brunton said, referring to the Pajaro Jai, "does anybody really think they can't use the Internet?"

The Web would provide an outlet where Chocoes could sell their products at fair market value, subtracting the middleman from the equation.

"They have to do something, or accept a miserable future," Brunton said.

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