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In 2019, the Maine Legislature passed a bill making the switch from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. And on Monday, the state will celebrate this new holiday for the fourth time.
This is an important day of symbolism that provides a specific and official opportunity, well overdue, to recognize our Wabanaki neighbors and the role they’ve played in Maine’s history (including long before Maine was even a state). But it must also be more than that.
Last year at this time, we wrote that symbolism of Indigenous Peoples Day is not enough. That the Wabanaki tribes deserve, and the entire state of Maine needs, meaningful reform in tribal-state relations.
Was it “mission accomplished” in that regard this year? No. But policymakers in Augusta and tribal leaders made significant progress on several issues that, with continued effort, we believe can lay the groundwork for a more balanced relationship.
A central piece of this conversation is the 1980 land claim settlement that ended a period of uncertainty about ownership of two-thirds of the land in the state, but also led to decades of friction between the tribes and the state. A sweeping tribal sovereignty bill to revisit that past settlement stalled in Augusta this year with continued opposition from Gov. Janet Mills. There was incremental progress on issues such as tribal involvement in gaming, tax relief, the process for tribal-state collaboration and Passamaquoddy water access.
Tribal leaders issued a lengthy statement in April, after some of those agreements had been reached and as the larger sovereignty bill looked likely to fall short. That joint statement was written by Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians Chief Clarissa Sabattis, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis, Mi’kmaq Nation Chief Charlie Peter Paul, William Nicholas Sr. of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township and Elizabeth Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point.
“So, while we have made significant and concrete progress in moving the needle, there is still more work to be done. Time is on our side,” the tribal leaders said. “Our people have lived with the negative consequences of the settlement act for over 40 years. However, we have made more progress in our sovereignty restoration efforts in the past four years than we did in the previous several decades. We need to remember that we started this fight on the backs of our ancestors and those who came before us, and our goal has always been to make progress for the next seven generations that will come after us. Our fight for sovereignty restoration will not end today. We want the conversation to continue and we will press forward to engage more Mainers on these issues.”
The work and progress this past year highlights once again how issues can be complicated without being unsolvable. More work in Augusta is needed to find more compromise and find more solutions.
Individual Mainers can continue to do work themselves, too. They can engage with tribal voices to better understand these issues and the history involved. As just one example, there will be a virtual event on Indigenous Peoples Day put together by the Abbe Museum, American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and Wabanaki Alliance. The event, focusing on a 2001 state law requiring that Wababaki history and culture be taught in Maine schools, starts at 10 a.m. Monday and can be viewed on the Wabanaki Alliance’s Youtube channel.
Indigenous Peoples Day is not only a day of symbolism or a day off from work for some. It must also be a day of action, a day of learning and a day of continuing conversations — both in the halls of power and in the hearts and minds of Mainers.