Sam Sapiel, 75, Indian activist, spiritual leader

By Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff | May 16, 2007

Sam Sapiel stood on Deer Island on a chilly February day in 1993, snow dusting his shoulders and memories gripping his heart.

"On days like these, Deer Island reminds me of Wounded Knee," he said. "We have to remember the things that were done, the atrocities."

Remembering elders and the Indian ways defined Mr. Sapiel's life and work. He was a full Penobscot Indian who prayed in the Penobscot language and used English to persuade the descendants of European settlers to respect the grounds upon which his ancestors had walked and died.

A lifelong activist for the rights of indigenous people, Mr. Sapiel died in his house in Falmouth Saturday of kidney cancer that had metastasized. He was 75 and also had a homestead on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine, where he was born.

His death "is a huge loss to this community," said Joanne Dunn, executive director of the North American Indian Center of Boston. "It's devastating, because he was so many wonderful things. He was the heart of this community, he truly was. We loved him very much."

A spiritual leader, Mr. Sapiel led the opening prayers at the center's events. He had been a life member of the group since it was the Boston Indian Council, which evolved into the current organization.

"He was always thinking and praying in his language, wanting to do things the good way, the Indian way," said Shirley Mills, who was married to Mr. Sapiel in 1975 by a medicine man on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine.

"There aren't that many speakers left in the Penobscot language," Dunn said.

Prayers were only part of Mr. Sapiel's contributions, however. He attended the National Day of Mourning ceremonies on Cole's Hill in Plymouth near Plymouth Rock, where Native people mourn the losses suffered by tribes across the nation as Thanksgiving Day is celebrated.

Through the 1990s, Mr. Sapiel was a leader of the Muhheconnew National Confederacy, an alliance of tribes from Maine to Delaware that has worked to protect burial grounds and Native American sites.

Among his other advocacy efforts were protests over land use ranging from a dog park to construction of a sewage treatment plant on Deer Island. In 1675, colonists forced hundreds of Native Americans to the island, and many did not survive the winter.

Mr. Sapiel also took part in the successful push two years ago to repeal a 1675 law that banned Native Americans from entering Boston.

"Most people are not able to be spiritual leaders or traditionalists and still be political activists," Dunn said. "He was one of the few people I know who could pull that off."

John Sapiel, who was known to most as Sam, was good at sports growing up, though his early accomplishments were tempered by a lack of money.

"It was hard," Mills said. "He was an excellent athlete, but he couldn't afford sneakers."

Sometimes he would borrow sneakers from others at school and use them. Sometimes they were the wrong size.

Retaining his athletic prowess into later years, Mr. Sapiel competed in contests until 2005, taking part in triathlons and an annual 100-mile run from Indian Island to Mount Katahdin in Maine. He also was a golfer who participated in Native American tournaments and scored a hole-in-one at the Woodbriar Golf Club in Falmouth in 2001, 2002, and 2005.

Two years ago, he was honored by the Boys and Girls Club on Indian Island, which named its facility for Mr. Sapiel.

"He helped people and respected people, particularly children and the elders," Mills said.

"He didn't have children of his own, but every child was his," Dunn said. "That's what kind of man he was."

In 1995, as the federal government moved to have museums across the country submit inventories of all Native American remains and funeral objects in their possession, Mr. Sapiel spoke to the Globe about the importance of such items.

"These things have a lot of significance," he said. "We believe that when Indian people die, they go to the spirit world and they have to take their belongings with them. And the symbolic value of some of these other objects is the way they tell the true story of what happened to the Indian people through the years."

Using humor and stories from the past, Mr. Sapiel often found himself in the role of conciliator when disagreements broke out among acquaintances.

"If he knew someone was having a hard time with another person, he would try to bring everybody together, and he'd say, 'Let's pray,' " Dunn said.

The sight and sound of Mr. Sapiel leading a prayer, with medicine bundle in hand, was familiar for many Native Americans in New England over the past decades, such as four years ago when he and others were fighting a dog park on Deer Island, arguing that its presence defiled grounds where Indians may have perished and been buried.

"O Great Spirit, o creator of all living things, help keep us strong," he said while waving a stick of burning sage during a gathering of Native Americans in Jamaica Plain. "We ask you to bless the wetlands and the monuments and sacred burial grounds."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Sapiel leaves two sisters, Patricia Lizotte of Wallingford, Conn., and Viola Cotta of Indian Island in Old Town, Maine; two stepdaughters, Roxanne Brown of Ada, Okla., and Shelly Pocknett of Mashpee; two stepsons, Earl Mills Jr. and Robert Mills, both of Mashpee; nine grandsons; and six granddaughters.

A service will be held at 5 p.m. tomorrow at the Boys and Girls Club on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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