Arla Patch, a non-Native artist, teacher and volunteer for the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is looking for high school students in Bethel, Maine to enter an essay contest for the annual Molly Ockett Days Festival that will take place next July. Two winning essayists—one girl and one boy—will each receive a $350 prize.
The essay contest, which began last year, is part of a process that is transforming the 55-plus year old homecoming pageant, which featured among other things a non-Native Indian “princess” in Hollywood-type “Indian” garb riding in a convertible down Maine Street, into a festival that includes members of Maine’s Wabanaki nations and honors the woman who lends her name to this local celebration.
“Molly Ockett was really an amazing woman, a powerful woman. She was gifted as a herbalist and midwife and healer,” said Patch, who is the moving force behind changing the Molly Ockett Days Festival.
Molly Ockett was such an extraordinary Abenaki (Wabanaki) that legends spun around her have come down through time. She lived (c. 1740-1816) during a turbulent period in the relationship between Maine’s indigenous people and the white settlers who came and settled on indigenous lands. She was an itinerant medicine woman who wandered through the woodlands of Western Maine administering her herbal remedies to anyone who needed them. She was a fine hunter, who shared her kill with the people around her. She was an artisan skilled in traditional Abenaki crafts. She made baskets, moccasins, leather-work items, bark boxes, and pottery and was especially skilled in beadwork, quillwork, weaving, and embroidery. Molly Ockett was called a bridge between the worlds of the Abenaki and the white settlers and was once referred to as “Androscoggin Valley’s Florence Nightingale.”
Until this year, the annual Molly Ockett Days Festival in Bethel, Maine, had little to do with her, or Native history or the Native culture that continues to thrive among the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot communities of the Wabanaki Confederacy. For Patch the light bulb went off in 2012 when she watched the Molly Ockett Days procession with former Penobscot Chief Barry Dana, cringing at what she saw.
“When the festival started around 55 years ago it was from a good intent—the idea was the community was trying to support families who needed help with health and wellness, but it was just so incredibly ignorant. So I’m standing there with Barry and the ‘princess’ comes riding down the street and I was devastated with embarrassment,” Patch said. But it was a learning moment. “What happened was it was an opportunity to see the racism because it all came out—the float with a bunch of kids stripped to the waist covered in ‘war paint’ whooping and holding tomahawks. They had a Plains Indians tipi. They had a birch bark canoe—Barry does birch bark work—and I thought what we need to do is for a boy and a girl to write essays about what it was really like for the Wabanakis during Molly Ockett’s lifetime. Because what they would run into, of course, is Phips Proclamation when white people were paid 50 pounds for the scalp of an Indian male over the age of 12—which is where ‘redskins’ comes from—and Molly Ockett had to survive through that time. So there were all these people going to the Molly Ockett Days Festival and they didn’t have a clue about any of this history.”
This year, Patch and friends both in and out of the Wabanaki communities—especially Robin Zinchuk, president of the local Chamber of Commerce—helped turn the festival into a meaningful event that celebrates both Molly Ockett and the present-day Native communities that often continue to struggle against the state’s lingering indifference or rejection of indigenous life and culture. In addition to the American summer festival standards of arts and crafts, music, food, fireworks and foot races on Saturday, Sunday was dedicated to Penobscot cultural heritage, Native American drumming, dancing, storytelling and booths selling Native items.
“The most important thing to me about honoring Molly Ockett, whose role in healing was so encompassing that local people never forgot her and commemorate her still, is we are also beginning to heal a long-standing injustice by including her descendants in this celebration,” Patch said. Patch and others are working hard on next year’s festival. “We want to make it even more respectful, more educational. We are thinking of using the theme ‘Homecoming’ to bring the focus back around to what locals have always loved while at the same time continuing the expansion.” And she’s looking for a lot of high school students to participate in the essay contest.
Check out this year’s festival, always held the third weekend in July: