AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 200 people rallied Monday outside the State House to mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day and call on voters to support a November referendum that would restore tribal treaty obligations to the Maine Constitution.
The Wabanaki Alliance rally also came a few months after state lawmakers failed to override Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill meant to allow Maine tribes to benefit from federal laws they are excluded from under a landmark 1980 settlement that relinquished a tribal claim for over two-thirds of the state’s land and regulated tribes like cities and towns.
Although the settlement changed some regulations for Maine’s four federally recognized tribes — the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq people — Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant said Monday “we never ceded our sovereignty.”
The tribes and their allies said earlier this year it seems unlikely Mills, a Democrat, will ever change her long-running views against a wider sovereignty effort. Tribes came close to passing it over the governor’s veto by winning over key Republicans, and Bryant said time will be on their side going forward.
“We are making friends, not losing friends,” Bryant told Monday’s crowd that included allies of the 170-plus-member Wabanaki Alliance Tribal Coalition from groups such as the Maine People’s Alliance and various churches.
The rally largely focused on Question 6, which is one of eight November ballot measures and asks voters to restore language to Maine’s Constitution honoring the state’s historical obligations to tribes.
Voters took Section 5, Article X of the Constitution out of circulation in 1875, and it has not appeared in copies since 1876. The section and two others that voters could restore remained in full force legally. They are available on the Legislature’s website but are omitted elsewhere.
Section 5 said Maine would “perform all the duties and obligations” of the commonwealth of Massachusetts — from which Maine separated in 1820 to become its own state — toward the tribes, “whether the same arise from treaties, or otherwise.”
Little historical evidence exists for why the treaty-related section was removed from the Constitution, leading to debate on whether it was simply a clerical decision or, as the Wabanaki Alliance, believes an effort to hide Maine’s responsibilities to its tribal communities.
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, has been among the supporters of the tribal sovereignty push and told rally attendees the decision to strike that language from the Constitution was “unconscionable.”
Monday’s rally in the area between the State House and Burton M. Cross Building began with music from the Bangor-based guitar duo Just Honey as well as a prayer from Wabanaki Alliance Vice President Richard Silliboy, who is also vice chair of the Mi’kmaq Nation. It ended when Bryant and her family led a march to the front steps of the capitol building.
“Our Land, Our Water, Our Future,” one banner read.
Referring to the referendum question appearing on November’s ballot, the crowd also repeatedly shouted, “Yes on 6.”