Tribal Sovereignty in the Dawnland
Climate Justice | August 5, 2021 | Posted by Jill McLaughlin
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This month’s contributor is Ambassador Maulian Dana, who was appointed by Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis in September 2017. As Ambassador, Maulian is responsible to act as a representative of the Penobscot Nation and to serve as a liaison for the Nation at the local, state and federal levels of government to educate and advocate for policy and laws that impact and protect the Penobscot Nation’s sovereignty, culture, natural resources and the general welfare of the Penobscot people. Prior to serving as Ambassador, Maulian served as an elected member of the Penobscot Tribal Council. Ambassador Dana grew up on Indian Island within the Penobscot Nation’s Reservation. She graduated from the University of Maine in Orono with a degree in political science.
Tribal Sovereignty in the Dawnland
In 2017 I received one of the greatest honors of my life when Chief Kirk Francis appointed me as the first Tribal Ambassador for the Penobscot Nation. This position exists because in 2015 we voted to remove our representative to the legislature due to the relationship not serving us in a positive and equitable way. Being in this role has excited and energized me but there is also a great deal of pressure because I am the first one to do it. I know I won’t always get it right, but I also know I am guided by a pure love of our homeland, our people, and a commitment to make this state more just for my children and all children.
As a teenager I learned a lot about what Indigenous people are up against. I studied our ancestors and the things that made them maintain our tribal nations while suffering the unthinkable acts of genocide that are the untold story of the colonization of America. Untold by history books, but branded in the hearts, minds, and soul memory of the tribal citizens in Maine and all of the United States and Canada.
In the early 2000s I witnessed first-hand the power and control that the paper mill industry and state of Maine exercised freely over the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes. My father, Barry Dana, was serving as our Chief at the time and I accompanied him to court one day in Portland. The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Chiefs were sentenced to jail that day for not turning over internal tribal documents to three paper mills who have polluted our river and our people for generations. They were also fined 1,000 dollars per day that these materials were not produced. The tribes were backed into a corner and decided together to turn these documents over. That felt like losing to me but it also felt like we fought very hard to protect what is sacred to us.
I also saw positive change happen. My Great Aunt Donna Loring was the tribe’s representative to the Maine legislature in 2001 and she invited me to testify in Augusta on a bill that would ban the racial slur “s*uaw” from Maine placenames. There was powerful, heartbreaking, resilient testimony from Wabanaki women who described the power in a word when the word is hate speech used in hate crimes. That bill was passed into law. That felt like winning to me, like we took back something sacred.
Being able to defend and hold onto things that are sacred is the most important thing. When things went well or when they didn’t.
Both of these experiences showed me what has sustained Indigenous people in the land now called Maine. The Wabanaki, or people of the Dawnland, is the name of the confederacy containing the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki. The first four tribes reside in five reservation communities in Maine that are sovereign tribal nations. The Abenaki have ancestral homeland in Maine with recognition in Canada. We span many geographic regions, we have unique languages and histories, but we unite around many cultural practices as well as policy matters.
LD 1626: Restoring Wabanaki Tribal Sovereignty
We are currently seeking restoration of inherent tribal sovereignty that was undermined and diminished by the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement and Implementing Acts of 1980. To understand all of the tension and litigation surrounding the tribal state relationship we can look to the provisions of this lawsuit settlement that have been used at the backstop of Indian law for the last 4 decades. The claims to land were settled, but the act goes further and sets up jurisdictional parameters that favor state control and also prohibits federal Indian law from applying to the tribes in Maine. The combination of these two factors has resulted in a harmful grey area; the tribes do not believe that we gave up sovereignty or our rights as federally recognized tribes, yet the state has interpreted the document to mean that the tribes are municipalities, wards of the state, and cannot act like sovereign nations. This inhibits functionality in this relationship and we are not able to be self-determined and enjoy government to government interaction in an effective way like other tribes in the United States. We also are not able to have access to any of the 150+ laws passed by Congress since 1980 that would benefit tribes.
We have made progress through diplomacy and collaboration with state government even after generations of mistrust and hostility. We have banned Indian mascot use in Maine schools, so my children won’t have to endure this harmful practice when they go to high school. We have corrected the historical narrative by celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day instead of glorifying genocide by maintaining “Columbus Day”. Now we need to dig deeper and get to the heart of
injustice and inequity. Upcoming legislation, LD 1626, seeks to put into law the recommendations of a task force convened by the state, with all Wabanaki Chiefs as sitting members along with lawmakers and representatives from the Attorney General and Governor’s offices. The task force recommended amendments to the 1980 act to restore tribal sovereignty and self-determination through jurisdictional changes and incorporation of federal Indian law. These changes would put systems into place that are working for all of the other tribes around the country.
It is not about special rights, it is about equal rights.
When the tribes have increased opportunities and the ability to better protect our most sacred resources, it is good for all of Maine.
I am humbled and honored each day I get to serve as Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador. My teenage years witnessing the hard work of my family and my people impressed upon me both the struggles and the possibilities. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and I honor their plight by using my voice. From the wise elders who held onto our ways and taught them to others, to the babies ripped from native families by the Catholic Church or government. I come from trauma, but I also come from a deep and triumphant strength. America and Canada are having a reckoning when it comes to the historical wounds they inflicted on my people. It is not ancient history. It is something we have always known and something they can no longer ignore. The time has come in Maine to repair the damage and heal together, and this can only be done if the tribes are seen and treated as equal sovereigns.
To stay up to date with the Wabanaki Alliance’s efforts, please follow them on Facebook.