Dr. Robert Bernheim, assistant professor of history at the University of Maine at Augusta, is seen on a video camera Friday as he provides a faculty perspective on this year’s theme of “race and social justice” during a livestream of the 2021 convocation from a mostly empty Farber Forum at UMA. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — He “wasn’t supposed to be here.”

That’s what Mohamed Khalid told University of Maine at Augusta classmates during the annual convocation ceremony Friday. What the refugee from Somalia meant was that against all odds, he not only fled his home country, but is attending college — and speaking at the event.

“The same country that enslaved people who look like me, beat them, lynched them and denied them jobs, education and democracy, is the same country that gives refuge for people fleeing oppression and is a beacon of opportunity for those seeking a better life,” Khalid said. “It’s the same country that welcomed me, my family and my friends and told us at the same time, ‘You aren’t welcome,’ but still sent me through public school, then to university, much more than people in the world could only dream of. America is a contradiction.”

Mohamed Khalid

He noted that education is the driving force in changing people’s attitudes about race, but that it also serves as a barrier for Black and brown people. Khalid said that only 20% of Black men earn four-year college degrees, compared to 40% for white men.

“Reduced educational opportunities lead to less earning potential,” the business administration major said. “Black men end up poorer, sicker and dying earlier because we lack the access to education others take for granted.”

Also delivering a keynote speech during the virtual convocation ceremony was Donna Loring, who has served as the Penobscot Nation’s tribal council, the tribe’s nonvoting representative in the Maine Legislature and as an aide to two governors, including Gov. Janet Mills. She has a background in law enforcement and is a Vietnam War veteran.

Loring talked about the discrimination the Wabanaki people faced before Maine became a state. She also called for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to reconsider previous decisions made against the Wabanaki.

“Maine owes its statehood to slaves and Indians,” she said. “Slaves because Maine entered the union by condition it became a free state and Indians in the agreement with Massachusetts to accept it’s treaty obligations, written into the articles of separation, included in the Maine constitution.”

Donna Loring

When the nation first started out, Loring explained, “land was the key to wealth, power and growth of a nation,” but all of the land in what we know today as Maine belonged to the Native American tribes.

“Land was a part of nation building and without land, there is no America,” she said.

In 1796, the native tribes signed a treaty with Massachusetts to give up land within 6 miles of the Penobscot River, and only claimed four townships for themselves. The act was renewed in 1818 with Massachusetts. Then in 1820, when Maine became an official state, a surveying team was sent out within six months of statehood to claim more Penobscot land.

State agents negotiated the land in “any way they could,” Loring said, and in 1833, in violation of the treaty, the four townships were fraudulently taken from the tribes and given to the state of Maine. At that point in time, 96% of native land had been taken by the state. Then, she said, the state created “Blue Book” laws to “control every aspect” of Indian life and the state ignored the treaty obligations to the tribes.

“The effect of these rulings have caused irreparable damage,” Loring said, adding it was just the start of discrimination against Maine’s indigenous people.

A number of years later the state Legislature removed the section of Maine law that cited treaty obligations to the tribes. In 1892, Loring said, a Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision ruled “the Indian residents within the state are not Indian tribes, nor are they any successor of any of the Eastern Tribes of Indians with whom treaties were made, they can not claim any exemptions or privilege’s under any treaties.”

She said these court decisions are still referenced today and called on Maine’s highest court to “revisit its false and fabricated cases” that have set “harmful precedents.”

“These court opinions have assisted the state in its efforts to marginalizing and eliminate the tribes, so perhaps now, with introspective Maine supreme court justices expressing values, the court will revisit its own history,” Loring said.

Also speaking during the convocation were interim President Joseph Szakas and history professor Robert Bernheim.

At the start of each academic year, UMA chooses a theme on which to focus. Last year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the theme was “outbreak” and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center of Disease Control, spoke.

There has been a heightened conversation about racial inequality in the year following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd. UMA’s “race and social justice” theme for this year is designed to make students and staff “reflect upon issues of race and social justice from a variety of perspectives.”

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