Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at the signing ceremony to establish Indigenous Peoples' Day, Friday, April 26, 2019, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Several tribal leaders attended the event. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Amy Roeder, D-Bangor, represents District 125 in the Maine House of Representatives. She is a member of the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee.

I often reflect on the important work being done in the Maine Legislature and, late last month, I was reminded of just how impactful our work truly is. I had the honor of testifying in support of LD 1626, legislation that would restore tribal sovereignty to the Wabanaki Nations, sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross. I believe this to be an inherent right of the Wabanaki Nations.

While working as the director of education at the Penobscot Theatre, I once had the privilege of working with Indigenous youth on a project about their communities’ lived experiences. One day, after a production completed in collaboration with the Penobscot Nation, a young performer noted to me, “I never thought I would see my stories on this stage.” For me, this performer’s words were an important reminder of how far we have to go in recognizing our collective history and addressing past injustice.

According to Wabanaki Reach, since Maine’s colonization, the Wabanaki people have suffered a 96 percent population depletion, land dispossession and forced removal, decimation of traditions through Christian conversion, warfare between Europeans and scalp bounties. Into the 1990s, Wabanaki children were separated from their families and placed into foster care or orphanages, of which the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission produced extensive information in their 2015 report. This is but a mere scratch on the surface of the pain inflicted upon the Wabanaki people.

This violent past is part of Maine’s history and should push us all to pursue a more just future. The first step is to restore tribal sovereignty. For over 40 years, the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act has denied the Wabanaki people benefits from over 150 federal laws. These laws would have provided the tribes with increased access to health care, the chance to expand environmental protections and opportunities for economic development.

During the 129th Legislature, legislative members largely recognized that tribes should enjoy the same rights, privileges and powers of all other federally recognized tribes in the United States, of which they currently do not. Two key working groups were formed to provide guidance to legislators and the public on how to move forward. The Maine Indian Claims Task Force produced a report outlining 22 recommendations that would update the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act. Further, the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations produced an extensive report examining pending legislation that would improve the lives of historically disadvantaged communities, with sovereignty for the Wabanaki Nations being a top priority.

LD 1626, a direct result of this important work, would allow the Wabanaki Nations to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction over individuals and activities, regulate natural resources and provide the ability to tax individuals who conduct activities on reservation lands. Additionally, the bill would restore the full amount of land that the Wabanaki Nations were promised in the original Settlement Act.  

Righting the wrongs of history is not easy, and we have a lot of work ahead of us in order to achieve racial equity. It is a sad fact that white supremacist groups have become emboldened across the country and here in Maine. I have personally seen white nationalist messaging from out-of-state agitators in my email inbox. We have to take a stand against the dangerous ideology they are spreading by making it clear that the progress of one community does not result in the demise of another.

The truth is, the only way we can reach our fullest potential as a society is by ensuring that no one is left behind. This is the case with Tribal sovereignty, and it is why I will continue to advocate and support legislation like LD 1626. I hope that you will join me in following and supporting this work.