UNITY, Maine – Fredda Paul, a Passamaquoddy elder, medicine man, healer, storyteller and living encyclopedia of the uses of indigenous plants, was recognized for his knowledge and practice with an honorary degree in environmental science at Unity College’s commencement ceremony May 12.
Unity College President Mitchell Thomashow paid tribute to the long history of Maine’s coastal tribes in presenting Paul with the honorary degree.
”I know that Fredda is receiving an honorary degree in botany. The knowledge that he has about native New England and Maritime plants and their medicinal properties is extensive and based on knowledge spanning thousands of years of his ancestors using and refining the use of these plants for medicines. He learned from his grandmother, in the oral tradition that she learned, to look for medicinal plants. The name that scientists use to describe Fredda’s kind of particular knowledge is ethnobotany,” Thomashow said.
Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants, Thomashow explained.
”Ethnobotany has its roots in botany, the study of plants. Botany, in turn, originated in part from an interest in finding plants to help fight illness. Fredda has been studying plants and their healing properties since he was about 9 or 10 years old,” Thomashow said.
Paul, who has been associated with Unity College for years, is the only American Indian on record to be given an honorary degree at Unity, Alumni Officer Kate Grenier said.
”His work has touched many of our students’ lives. He comes to campus to teach herbal medicine and herbal uses,” Grenier said.
Reached by phone at his Pleasant Point home, Paul, 60, declined to comment because, as a traditional medicine man, he avoids telephones and other machines.
A biographical sketch of Paul put together by Unity researchers was read by Thomashow at the commencement.
Paul was kidnapped as a toddler and spent most of his first 13 years in an Indian residential school in Canada, Thomashow said.
These schools operated both in Canada and the United States under the guise of ”assimilation” – an essentially racist policy intended to wipe the ”Indianness” out of Indian children by forbidding them to speak their languages or display any signs of Native culture.
Yet, in many ways, residential school became for Paul a vision quest for strength and survival, Thomashow said.
When Paul was found and brought home from residential school, he was driven by the language and traditions of the Passamaquoddy to find his place in the world. The speech of his elders provided entertainment, knowledge, life lessons and sacred stories that are the foundation of Passamaquoddy culture, Thomashow added.
Paul first learned medicine from his grandmother. As a teenager, he would be given descriptions or sketches and sent out to gather the plants she needed. During these years, every family used the traditional medicine of their heritage – balsam, cedar, flagroot, cow parsnip – known in their language as puhpukhawihq [boo-pook-HAH-weekw], kakskus [GAHK-skooz], kiwhosuwasq [geew-H’-zoo-wahskw] and paqolus [BAH-gw’-looz].
It was the teaching of Paul’s grandmother and other elders that planted in him the desire to make traditional medicine his life work. Nearly half a century of learning about and working with the plants has given Paul a keen awareness of the importance of this tradition, Thomashow said.
Like other aspects of indigenous culture, much of the tribe’s collective knowledge of Native medicine is at risk of being lost. That’s why Paul and his wife are working so hard to teach and preserve the knowledge.
”As the elders taught him, he is sharing – teaching classes and workshops to students of all races throughout Maine, including young members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. With generosity and wisdom, he tells the stories, and his wife Leslie writes them down. Because of Fredda’s farsightedness and his willingness to share, the medicine of the Passamaquoddy is being recorded for the first time to be kept alive for future generations,” Thomashow said.