Without Self-Government, Indigenous Peoples Day Does Not Honor Maine’s Wabanaki Tribes

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Clarissa Sabattis is leader of the Houlton Band of Maliseets. Kirk Francis is the Chief of the Penobscot Nation.

To celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, you must first appreciate and respect Indigenous peoples. You must understand the importance of inherent sovereignty which is the backbone of our heritage and culture. You have to trust us for autonomy. The only real way to celebrate the indigenous people of Maine is to change the system that treats us differently than every other tribe in the country.

Due to a 40-year-old settlement called the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, the Wabanaki tribes of Maine generally have more restrictions on our rights than the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the country. The settlement was the result of a federal lawsuit, based on allegations by the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation in the 1960s and 1970s, that Maine had illegally taken two-thirds of state land from tribes in direct violation. of federal law.

Eventually, in 1980, the land claims of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Nation, and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians were settled out of court through a settlement agreement and state law, the Maine Implementing Act. At the time, our tribes believed that we would be partners in the state and not be treated as wards of the state. Our tribes believed that we would be able to redeem the lands promised in the laws, build our tribal governments, and uplift our communities and economies.

The federal Settlements Act states that any law passed by Congress to benefit Native tribes after 1980 does not apply in Maine if that law affects state jurisdiction, unless Congress specifically includes the Maine tribes. If the Wabanaki tribes are not specifically included, we do not benefit, unlike the other 570 federally recognized tribes. Since 1980, there have been 151 beneficial laws for Indian country. These laws range from protecting Wabanaki women from the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women to protecting the environment and access to clean water.

Maine has interpreted state law, the Maine Implementing Act, as placing tribes under state control. The intent of the federal and state legislation was for the tribes and the state to work together and resolve issues that the Settlements Act could not foresee. This is why the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission was created. But unfortunately the commission did not play this role of intermediary between the State and the tribal rulers. So what happened instead?

For more than 40 years, the tribes and the state have been in costly litigation. The state chose to paternalistically maintain and aggressively defend the relics of its colonial power over the tribes. And what did it do? It has caused lasting harm to rural communities by interfering with the ability of tribes to provide basic government services, pursue economic development, and take advantage of benefits and funding provided by federal law.

For example, the state’s treatment of tribes has encouraged foreign mining companies to target Maine because of the perceived lack of native rights.

Last July, Ron Little, CEO of Wolfden Resources, a Canadian mining company, said in a presentation to investors that “there are no aboriginal rights in the state of Maine” and that this lack of aboriginal rights “streamlines the authorization process”.

In all other states, tribes have a seat at the table and can work with federal, state, and local government to create mutually beneficial outcomes. In Maine we face a government that has consistently fought our efforts to protect the environment and now we have that. We shouldn’t have to fight foreign corporations to protect our land and drinking water. Yet that is what we must do because the state largely ignores Abenaki rights.

Our sovereignty, our right to self-determination, our ability to grow as a community ended in 1980 and the pain continues today. The tribes could not have foreseen the distress in which future generations would have to live because of the act of colonization.

We were personally only children at the time. We are not here to debate the intentions of the people who sat around the table in 1980. We are here to say that now — more than a generation after the Settlement Act — the law needs to be modernized.

The Maine Legislature has investigated and revised the Settlement Act and is set to approve a significant change that will put the tribes of Maine on equal footing with tribes nationwide. There is currently legislation, LD 1626, in Augusta that would remedy many of the ills of the Maine tribes.

LD 1626, if passed, will show that people understand, trust and appreciate the tribes of Maine. When this law is passed and hopefully signed by the Governor, we can all truly celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. Until the system is changed, Indigenous Peoples Day does not honor the Wabanaki tribes.

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera