Maine Episcopalians voice support for bill that would restore Wabanaki sovereignty

By Egan Millard
Posted Feb 22, 2022

[Episcopal News Service] Maine Episcopalians are supporting the efforts of the state’s Native tribes to exercise the sovereign powers that enable tribes in other states to largely regulate their own affairs. By advocating for a bill currently before the state Legislature, the Wabanaki and their allies hope to restore some of the rights that the tribes lost in a 1980 agreement with the state.

The Wabanaki – usually translated as “People of the Dawn” are a group of Indigenous tribes, including the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac, who have lived in what is now northern New England and Canada’s Maritime provinces for thousands of years.

The Diocese of Maine held a Zoom webinar on Feb. 20 to educate Episcopalians about the complex disputes over sovereignty between the tribes and the state government and the importance of supporting the new bill, which diocesan leaders say would bring a more just resolution to those disputes.

Sponsored by the diocese’s Racial Justice Council and Committee on Indian Relations, the event titled “Restoring Wabanaki Tribal Sovereignty: Why a Faithful Response is Important, and What You Can Do” brought together diocesan leaders including Maine Bishop Thomas Brown, who offered the opening prayer, and keynote speaker Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s tribal ambassador.

“We are grateful for the People of the Dawn,” Brown said in his opening prayer, “and behold before our eyes the ways that we have mistreated and stole, so we come in confession and resolution to live differently, more like you intend and you desire. We shall not settle, O God, for low and little things; with your guidance and mercy, we shall reach for high and holy things.”

Maine is unique in terms of how the state interacts with the tribes. While other states and the federal government recognize Native tribes as sovereign nations with inherent powers of land regulation, taxation and self-governance (among others), since 1980, Maine has treated them more like municipalities subject to state governance. The Committee on Indian Relations is leading the diocese’s advocacy for new legislation that acknowledges tribal sovereignty.

The bill, L.D. 1626, is currently before the Maine Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which heard hours of public testimony about it at a Feb. 15 hearing. More than 100 people testified at the virtual hearing, nearly all in support, and over 1,200 submitted written testimony.

Dana said the struggle for sovereignty has been long and frustrating, but “after the hearing this past week, it was easy to find a lot of hope, … seeing the support we had from so many corners.”

The diocese’s Committee on Indian Relations has been engaged in education and advocacy work with the Wabanaki tribes since 1991. Meeting monthly, the group of about 25 lay and ordained members from around Maine aims “to stand with the tribes in the pursuit of justice, to affirm their inherent sovereignty and to support the preservation of Native languages and culture.”

Among the topics it has tackled is the “doctrine of discovery,” the concept that asserted the superiority of white Europeans and their descendants over Indigenous peoples that was used to justify the taking of Native lands. Members of the committee spearheaded resolutions rejecting the doctrine of discovery in the Diocese of Maine in 2007 and General Convention in 2009, the first time a Christian denomination had done so. The committee also produced a documentary in 2005 on relations between Native and white Mainers.

“There’s much to honor in our past, but we know that we must also be honest about our past even when it makes us uncomfortable,” the Rev. Kerry Mansir, rector of Christ Church in Gardiner, said during the webinar. “There’s a great deal for us to learn about how European colonization and the taking of Maine lands from Native peoples, often in the name of Christianity, impacted the Wabanaki tribes. There is much work to be done. And I hope that all of us continue to take the steps of better understanding the injustices of the past and working for a more equitable future.”

Dana gave webinar participants an overview of how the current situation came to be and how L.D. 1626 might improve it. Dana was a leader in the effort to ban Native mascots in Maine public schools, which was signed into law in 2019, and the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a state holiday. She is also the president of the Wabanaki Alliance, an organization of the four Wabanaki tribes in Maine dedicated to restoring tribal sovereignty. The Wabanaki Alliance is working with a coalition of organizations including the Diocese of Maine to pass L.D. 1626.

Growing up as the daughter of the chief of the Penobscot Nation, Dana said, “it seemed like the tribes were really losing a lot and that sovereignty was something constantly being trampled. But I also saw some good work going on in the Legislature that gave me some hope around this process. And I think a combination of all of those feelings lives in me today.”

In the 1970s, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribal leaders and lawyers, eventually joined by the U.S. Justice Department, assembled a legal case for violation of land treaties going back to the 18th century. In the intervening years, “essentially, two-thirds of the state of Maine was illegally taken from the tribes,” Dana said. In an unprecedented case, the tribes asserted a claim to about 60% of the state’s land.

The state’s response, Dana said, “was, ‘We don’t want to see a nation within a nation.’ Now, if you are fully respecting tribal sovereignty and tribal nationhood, that’s exactly how we should be viewed.”

The tribes, suffering from poverty and faced with the prospect of a costly, drawn-out litigation process, agreed to the settlement laid out in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Agreement of 1980. The settlement ended all aboriginal land title claims in Maine, giving $81.5 million to the tribes in return. Fearing that a new presidential administration might veto any such settlement, the tribes believed it was the best deal they could get, Dana said.

The tribes used some of the funds to buy land back from the state, but the settlement’s restriction of tribal self-governance meant the tribes were hampered in their ability to pursue economic development on their lands and run their own criminal justice systems, among other things, and over time, the law came to be viewed as inadequate.

After a legislative attempt to change the tribes’ status stalled in 2020, L.D. 1626 was introduced in the current session. The bill would “expand tribal jurisdiction over tribal lands, waters, resources and people,” Dana summarized.

“In every other [state], the tribe and the federal government … interact with the state as sovereigns. In Maine … the state acts very paternalistic, and sees tribes as wards of the state. That’s the mindset that we’re trying to overcome.”

During the public testimony portion of the hearing, “we had historic turnout, possibly record turnout in support” of the bill, Dana said.

Committee member John Hennessy, the diocese’s director of public advocacy, agreed.

“I’ve been working in Augusta for more than 20 years, and I’ve never – with perhaps the one exception being [marriage equality legislation] – I’ve never seen something so well orchestrated, so clearly organized to give the message loudly and clearly that this was something that needed to happen,” Hennessy said.

Dana thanked the diocese for being an ally in the effort, saying the growing coalition of tribal, religious and environmental organizations brings her hope that the bill will pass.

“So much of the work of good allyship and the work of good policymaking and the work of good in general is done beyond the borders of yourselves, of your own families, of your own communities, your own churches, and I think that’s where real change … happens as a society.”

Hennessy thanked the “good number” of Episcopalians who testified at the public hearing and said the next step is to reach out to legislators and Gov. Janet Mills, respectfully but forcefully asking them to support the bill.

“Let’s flood her office with letters, emails, phone calls, all of the above, to make sure that she knows that we’re watching and that we’re praying and that we’re hoping that this comes to the conclusion that the tribes have been looking for for 40-plus years,” Hennessy said.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at