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Sustainability series hosts discussion on Wabanaki fisheries

On Feb. 14, the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions hosted a discussion called “Wabanaki Fisheries: What Rivers Teach us About Partnerships” at Norman Smith Hall. The presentation was hosted by David Hart, the director of the center, and Tony Sutton, who earned his doctorate in ecology and environmental science from the University of Maine.

The presentation was introduced by Hart, who took a moment to remind the audience of the mission of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, which is to create a brighter future inside and outside of Maine by seeking collaborative solutions to sustainability issues. He then introduced Sutton, a member of the Passomoquody nation, who has dedicated his time to researching how to amplify Indigenous voices in discussions about environmental design and sustainability.

Sutton began with a brief synopsis describing his work as an undergraduate student. He talked about his experience with his interest in trying to unite Indigenous voices with sustainability solutions. When he expressed his desires, he was told simply “good luck.”

Sutton’s lecture primarily focused on the question of partnerships, and how the life-sustaining properties of rivers can reflect the notion of partnership between Indigenous people and those tasked with managing natural resources. Sutton’s work emphasizes the idea that fish passage is not just about food, but instead about values.

Sutton spoke about how his research involved visiting historical locations of displacement, including forts at key access points along Maine’s riverways. The colonization efforts that plugged the mouths of Maine’s key rivers also restricted access to life-giving places. Among the forts and locations that he visited were Cushnok, Fort Halifax and Fort Pownall. 

Sutton told the story of how these places reflect ongoing issues within the Indigenous community. While walking around Cushnok, Sutton was approached by a tour guide who asked him to leave, leading Sutton to reflect on the “role this fort first had in displacing our Wabanaki relatives.”

Sutton’s journey also took him to Fort Pownall, where he found land teeming with wildlife and waters full of fish. He saw that the land was communicating with him, and talked about how we have to give the land gratitude in return.

Sutton concluded his discussion by re-emphasizing the importance of these partnerships and acknowledging what the land needs, before opening the floor to questions.

Sutton was asked about advice he would give to open people’s minds to this collaborative research. To answer this question Sutton returned to an anecdote he had told earlier in the presentation about his experience looking for fiddleheads with his son.

“[It is] important to note that I didn’t find fiddleheads because I was going to look for them… it’s not something I was looking for, it was something the land was teaching me.” Sutton said. He said it’s important “to be open to the thing when it is presented to you.”

Following this event, the Senator George J. Mitchell Center hosted a new segment of their sustainability series, the Career Q&A, where students could ask questions about Sutton’s research and his career path. This new segment of the discussion series is designed to encourage students to explore careers in sustainability research by speaking to professionals in the field.

The next Sustainability Talks series discussion will take place on Feb. 28 and will address the resiliency of the Maine coast in the face of climate change.

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