I knew this would happen. More specifically, I knew that I would have to have this conversation.
More than a month ago, around the time Sandus was preparing to celebrate its tenth anniversary, a work colleague (that is, at the university where I work) said to me that some of my other colleagues had been talking about me and my micronation. That is completely normal: it is not uncommon in my life to hear that someone discovered my micronation, was either intrigued or bemused, and had talked to someone else (someone closer to me?) to discuss it. But this was different. They “talked” about it. Behind my back, and in an accusatory way.
These colleagues were talking about my title—sôgmô.
The word comes from the Western Abenaki language, an Algonquin language in the Atlantic Northeast used by an indigenous people from modern-day Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Québec. It has a handful of native speakers these days, but it has seen a resurgence of interest and somewhat of a revival on both sides of the border. In Canada, the Abenaki people are more established and institutionalised. In May 2008, the Canadian TV network CBC visited one of two Abenaki reservations in the province of Québec and highlighted the nation’s culture, and these reservations are historically part of the “Seven Nations of Canada”—a group of seven indigenous nations who were allied with the French in the 18th century.
Meanwhile, south of the border, the United States has no Western Abenaki reservations and no Western Abenaki nation has received federal recognition, though there is a movement to recognise the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, also known as the Sokoki band of the Western Abenaki. On 7 May 2012, the US state of Vermont recognised this band but the US Federal government still does not, so the nation’s sovereignty is all but disputed.
Part of this background are many people, but of particular interest to Anglophones are the Bruchac family. This family has a decades-long involvement with something of an Abenaki renaissance in English-speaking North America. The father, Joseph Bruchac, is a custodian of the language and of traditional mythology, while his son Jesse continues to teach Western Abenaki to interested people in Upstate New York and Vermont and also leads a small but dedicated community of those interested in Abenaki language and culture. See them both in action here, or see this community here. Dr. Margaret Bruchac is another custodian of this national culture as an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and plays an active role both in museum exhibitions of indigenous Atlantic culture in North America and in Native American studies. Click above for her extensive CV.
But the Western Abenaki are part of a larger culture of peoples in their region and across the continent. First, the Abenaki were historically a member of the Wabanaki Confederacy, also known as the Wôbanakiak (“peoples of the dawnland”), and long rivals of the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois confederacy). This confederation of five peoples—the [Western] Abenaki, the [Eastern] Abenaki or Penobscot, the Mikmaq, the Passamaquoddy, and the Maliseet—does have some reservations, like the Penobscot reservation in Old Town, Maine, that I visited with my uncle in 2011. But there are, again, no federally-recognised nations of the Western Abenaki.
The Abenaki, too, are part of a larger North American cultural group known as the Algonquians. This group is spread across subarctic northern North America, from the Cheyenne in the Plains to the Ojibwe and Potawatomi in the Great Lakes to the Abenaki in the Northeast and the Powhatan in the Chesapeake region.
Why am I explaining all this? Partially to inform, partially to show that I know what I am talking about. I am not particularly educated in the studies of indigenous peoples, but I am interested and—more importantly—I care. I genuinely care about these people, the Abenaki, and about indigenous peoples generally, and I care that they have their self-determination and sovereignty.
The problem with my title, which I knew I would have to explain, is that it is cultural appropriation. To outsiders of Sandus and, frankly, those who do not know my very well or who do not care enough to talk to me, I am a white man who has appropriated an indigenous term for my micronation.
And they are right. It is cultural appropriation. I am using a term that Abenakis today do not use, on either side of the border, and that is problematic that I am associating myself with their historical culture. But now I would like to change gears and give something of an apology.
Before he emigrated to the United States, my great-grandfather was born in southern Québec in the city of Lac-Mégantic, famous today for a terrible train accident that destroyed much of the city in 2013. But his family was also from Trois-Rivières, on the Saint Lawrence, and across the river from a municipality known as Bécancour. In an enclave of the area is Wôlinak, one of the historic Seven Nations of Canada and an Abenaki reservation. His family has lived in the area since the mid-17th century, and we share a common ancestor with Dominic Desaintes—another micronationalist interested in the history and rights of First Peoples in Canada. I grew up thinking about and being interested in this history. That is why from 2008 to 2012 I travelled repeatedly to the region—from Odanak in Québec to Norridgewock and Lovewell Pond in Maine—to learn more about the Abenaki from whom I thought I was descended.
At the same time as I was travelling, I was becoming more and more of a micronationalist—and, to me, that is an art. That is because, in many ways, micronationalism is an artwork in its entirety. It is a form of expression, and it often goes hand-in-hand with literal art and other artistic and cultural media. Micronations have to think about everything that any other nation-state does and emulate it, all while also (self-reflectively) recognising the artificiality of nation-states. Like many forms of art, micronationalism is critique, and my friend and colleague Adam von Friedeck recently presented a paper at the 10th anniversary conference on how this artwork engages with and responds to historical memory.
In 2011, Sandus formed its current and long-lasting government, the State of Sandus. This would be the last time Sandus would change its constitutions and I had frequently talked with other citizens to see what form of government they wanted. At the time, most Sandum citizens (in a surprising referendum for me) advocated for a monarchy in Sandus, and this lead me to something of an artistic choice: how exactly would I brand Sandus? what artistic form would Sandus take? By this, I of course mean what title would I use as the monarch of my micronation, but the idea was much broader.
I had many options to choose from, of course. Sandus had already previously had two baronies. I could have become a count, to mark a new turn in our historical development, or I could do away with low-level nobility and become either a regnant prince or a king. Or I could do what many micronationalists have done and claim to be an emperor.
But I didn’t want any of that. Not only did I want something unique to set Sandus apart from many other micronations in the world, I also wanted a politically meaningful title. So, I chose the title “sôgmô.”
There are two reasons why. First, look up the word in any Abenaki-English dictionary and the definition will (without a doubt) say “chief.” But another way to translate the term is “king” or “monarch,” as with the name for the first conflict (1675-1676) between the Wampanoag and English settlers. (That war, King Philip’s War, is named after the Christian name of Metacom, son of the famous Wampanoag king Massasoit.) And language is, after all, political, as I recognise with appropriating this title. The problem with translating sôgmô as “chief” is its racialised overtones that minimise how important and significant these leaders were. In a sense, claiming the title sôgmô is similar claiming the title “prince” or “king” in any other language, and (at the time) that was a political statement of reclaiming respectability for the Abenaki.
Not many people are aware of the Abenaki or their history, and this is a travesty shared by all indigenous peoples in North America and around the world. In fact, I doubt that my colleagues who gossiped about me and my micronation knew anything about the Abenaki before they looked up the title. Therein lies the second reason for why I chose this title. Not only did I want to highlight an often forgotten people, I also wanted to highlight the importance of indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and self-determination, especially in the United States. In other words, in 2011 I wanted to highlight the lives of indigenous peoples, the injustices done and still committed against them, and their humanity and dignity.
One of the bedrock principles of all micronationalism, after all, is that everyone has the human right to self-determination, the highest action of a people’s sovereignty.
But in the United States, this sovereignty is imperfect. Not only are certain nations kept from exercising this sovereignty or having this sovereignty recognised (in the case of the Missisquoi), but the legal category of Native American sovereignty is hardly sovereign at all but, more accurately, suzerain. After all, Native American nations’ governments in the United States only have jurisdiction over their citizens within their territory (reservations), but not over all people in their territory. In other words, a white police officer working for a Native American nation can arrest tribal members (or, as they really should be called, citizens) but they cannot themself be arrested by a Native American nation’s police force. This is imperfect sovereignty.
The artistic purpose why I chose the title “sôgmô,” then, has to do with all of the above. Yes, I recognise that insofar as Abenaki culture exists in the United States—it is after all an object of continued cultural genocide and of wrongs that are only recently being righted on both sides of the border—I am appropriating Abenaki culture. But in doing that, I am not profiting from Abenaki people’s culture but I am highlighting their culture, their history, the commonalities we share thanks to our common humanity, and the continued injustices committed by governments across the Americas against indigenous peoples. While I do not have the lived experiences or histories of indigenous peoples alive today, in this small degree I am an ally—and I will continue to advocate for the sovereignty and self-determination of indigenous peoples around the world.
And I challenge those colleagues and all others like them to do the same.
The discourse on cultural appropriation was not where it is today in 2011, and even today there are people who are absolutists about cultural appropriation. That is, cultural appropriation is bad always absolutely, forever and ever. On the other hand, since cultural appropriation happens all the time and has happened all the time in unconscious and unexamined ways, I prefer to call out cultural appropriation that is (1) mis- or uninformed and (2) exploitative of the appropriated culture.
And my exploitation of the Abenaki? I am not sure. Perhaps some could raise the point that I am deriving prestige from the title, and that is exploitative, but it also goes the other way—that I am both drawing someone’s ire from the political left or (especially in today’s age) someone’s ignorant and racist hatred from the political right. I do not profit from the use of the title (nor does Sandus really “profit” in the capitalist meaning of the word…). In fact, I probably lose much more money and credibility for using it, and that in my opinion is a bigger problem than appropriating the title.
I understand this apology may not be completely satisfactory for some, maybe even for many. But that is too bad. We in Sandus have used this title for more than eight years now, and I think for good reason. It is a form of my artistic expression and it is part of Sandus’s popular sovereignty and self-determination.
And, after all, the state’s not for turning. We’re going to keep on doing what we’re doing.