Mainers – and our Government – Need to Do More To Uphold Tribal Rights

Overhead view of the Penobscot River in summer

The long record of tepid, if not downright shameful, support for Maine tribal rights continues.

Maine’s tribal nations have less rights than national tribes due to a 1980 settlement that is part of a “history of fraud“, according to a recent government-issued report. In a sign of spring, two new bills offered in both the Maine Senate and US Congress offer the chance for real change. The Maine bill would give tribes more direct control over their own lands and laws. The national bill would include Maine tribes in future federal laws.

Unfortunately, Governor Mills’ office is against both bills, hurting their chances for success.

Her office explains their lack of support for the national bill by explaining that “Questions …should be answered on a case-by-case basis so that the effects on Tribal lands and adjacent non-tribal communities can be … evaluated and understood.”

In other words, we need to ensure Maine towns maintain their own levels of control and comfort. Even at the expense of tribal rights.

Land Acknowledgement Statements Aren’t Enough

While Governor Mills defends state control, others offer “land acknowledgement” statements. These are well-intentioned remarks admitting we built our towns on tribal lands. Yet they don’t differ much from the Governor’s “towns before tribes” approach.

Hearing one of these statements at an Orono candidates forum earlier this year inspired me to do some digging. I’m admittedly quite new to these issues, so I set out to understand what the data tells us about how this history of injustice has played out. I looked at Census Bureau data for two nearby areas — Orono and Indian Island, a Penobscot Nation town — and found major differences. Orono residents earn more than double. In Orono, we have more access to education, health care, and transportation. All this compared to a tribal community only six miles away.

While land acknowledgement statements help raise awareness, they ring hollow to me knowing that we are benefiting more than people whose land we are acknowledging. In that context, these statements aren’t enough, especially when our own government continues its embarrassing record of resisting change at the state and national level.

As residents and voters of Maine, we should be more vocal in our supportive of these bills and other initiatives to come so our tribal neighbors can enjoy – and help improve – the Maine we all share.

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