Tribal Sovereignty in Wabanaki Homeland: History, Policy, Connectedness and the Next Generations 

November 30, 2022

By Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador

I am honored to be able to share some of the recent efforts from the Wabanaki Alliance and tribal government administrations regarding policy and reconciling deep generational harm. I titled this talk with the goal in mind to impress upon you the impact that the struggles in Maine to have tribal sovereignty acknowledged, understood and recognized is wide and multifaceted. The struggles and triumphs in our homelands are certainly not unique to the Wabanaki, as tribal nations throughout the United States and Canada have undergone attempted genocide at the hands of the government and we now work within the same governments to remedy political oppression; however, we do have some nuances and high barriers to clear as we keep working towards the goals of increased recognition of our inherent tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

Keynote Friday 1
Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana. Holli Cederholm photo

I came into this work because of things I witnessed in my teenage years when my family members were in tribal leadership for the Penobscot Nation. My father Barry Dana served two terms as Tribal Chief and my great aunt Donna Loring served as our Tribal Representative to the legislature. My father was involved in a court battle, Great Northern Paper v. Penobscot Nation. The summary of the issues here was that the paper mill industry, supported by the state of Maine, filed Freedom of Information Act requests to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Nations to secure documents that the tribes argued were internal tribal matters that should not have been accessible to them. When the Maine Judicial Court judge ruled against the tribes the Chiefs were sentenced to jail and fined 1,000 dollars per day the documents were not turned over. The tribes decided that the stakes were too high and that we had to concede. The documents were turned over after a protest march. The march started in Norridgewock at the site of massacre of our ancestors in 1724. It ended at the State House in Augusta. The march was called the march for sovereignty, but to me it didn’t feel very sovereign to lose our rights over and over. I also remember thinking that maybe sovereignty meant protecting what is sacred even when the systems set up to oppress us do their job.

I also was able to participate in the legislative process for the first time as a teenager. Representative Loring invited me to testify on a bill sponsored by Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah. The bill would remove the word “squaw” from placenames in Maine. This word is a harmful racial slur that targets Indigenous women. I had already been called this word in a hateful way when I was in high school. I testified and also listened to powerful stories from two rooms full of Indigenous women, allies and friends. The bill was passed into law and this experience showed me that sometimes the systems can work for us. The women who bravely told traumatic accounts of being called this word and also subjected to abuse and hate crimes stuck a chord with lawmakers and reminded them of our shared humanity. When we can come together as humans sometimes we can make great progress.

The Wabanaki Alliance is an advocacy and educational nonprofit whose board of directors and advisory board members are tribal leaders from the Houlton Band of Maliseet, Mikmaq Nation, Motahkmikok Passamaquoddy Tribe, Sipayik Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation. Together we have historically connected for thousands of years as the Wabanaki Confederacy. Wabanaki comes from the word “chukwabanakiyik,” which means People of the Dawn Land.

When we began the most recent undertaking of trying to amend the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) and Maine Implementing Act (MIA) it made sense to look back on our history in our homelands while we crafted the best way to move forward. The land claims settlement was the result of a lawsuit in which the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy with the federal government sued the state of Maine over valid legal claims to roughly two-thirds of Maine (the Maliseet joined the suit later). The resulting settlement was heavily influenced by the state in a way that has hindered and oppressed the Wabanaki.

We had some legislative successes in the 129th legislature, such as changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day and banning racist Indian mascots in Maine public schools (the first state in the nation to do so). These were historic and significant achievements. The logical next step was to deepen this work and examine the real reasons for tension and distress in the tribal state relationship. A task force was developed comprised of tribal leaders, lawmakers and non-voting representatives of the attorney general and governor’s offices. This group did intensive sessions on the land claims and produced consensus recommendations that recommended changes to the settlement agreements. The main areas that need changing are the jurisdictional provisions and the fact that the MICSA prevents the tribal nations in Maine from having access to federal legislation. These parameters put in place by the state negotiators in 1980 were meant to undermine and constrict tribal sovereignty. The tribes agreed to the deal, which did include means to expand our land base but also has become increasingly problematic. The tribal leaders were told they could revisit this agreement. And the time to do so is now.

Our legislative efforts with the task force recommendations came up short as far as producing wide-scale changes to the MICSA. The omnibus bill with the bulk of these changes was opposed by Governor Mills and died in the Senate. However, we were able to lay a framework for negotiations with her and we were able to pass a bill into law that had three provisions. Positive and forward movement in the form of gaming, taxation and collaboration took shape in LD 585 which was signed into law by the governor earlier this year. Representative Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe also sponsored LD 906 which remedied factors that have prevented the Sipayik Nation from having clean drinking water. In 2022. This is a human rights crisis that most have not heard of and is the result of the jurisdiction problems that came about because of the MICSA. Tribal nations are not municipalities. And we should have the rights and responsibilities of tribal nations, not just another town or city in Maine.

We look to the future with hope and a foundation of good work. We also stand on the shoulders of tribal leaders that have been silenced and discriminated against in the generations before us. My ancestors were hunted for bounties placed on their scalps right here in our homelands. My ancestors were stolen from their families and communities as children and sent to live in schools where their identity and culture was considered evil. My people have faced the unthinkable and we are still here and able to speak loudly and proudly for what we need to survive and ensure wellbeing for the next generations. We have dealt with so many disruptions to our connection to the sacred and we have suffered. The fact that we are a miracle by our very existence is something that I treasure and carry with me as I get to do this work.

I invite you all to be good neighbors and join us in our quest for truth and healing. Please follow the Wabanaki Alliance efforts and help the Wabanaki Nations walk the path of seeking equity, fairness and respect.

Kci Woliwoni.

Maulian Dana serves as the first appointed Tribal Ambassador for the Penobscot Nation. She represents the tribe in local, state and federal government as an advocate and diplomat. Her background is in political science, activism, Penobscot culture, teaching and policy. She serves as the president of the board of directors for the Wabanaki Alliance, the co-chair of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, and is a member of the Maine Climate Council where she also co-chairs a subcommittee on equity. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Maine and she received an honorary law doctorate from Colby College.

This essay is excerpted from her keynote speech at the 2022 Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine. You can watch the keynote in its entirety at mofga.org/fair-keynote-speakers-2022.

This article was originally published in the winter 2022-23 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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