Just two years ago, on the second Monday in October, Maine celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day for the first time. It was an important statement that showed a desire to improve the relationship between the state government and the Wabanaki people.

The history of colonialism in what we now call Maine is rife with theft, violence, discrimination and exclusion committed by settlers against Native people.

It started with the arrival of Europeans, but not all of that history is in the distant past. It was state policy to remove Native children from their homes at many times the rate of non-Natives, a practice that lasted in different forms until as recently as 2013.

The Huntley Brook drumming and singing group play traditional songs at a celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the Maine State Historical Society in Portland in 2019. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

According to a report by the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Committee, separating children from their tribe, their native language and cultural support, was state policy carried out by state employees, leaving lasting trauma that echoes across generations.

Today, Indians in Maine have high rates of food insecurity and poverty as well as high rates of heart disease and other health conditions.

The tribes in Maine have had complicated relationships with the state and federal governments. It wasn’t until the passage of the Maine Indian Claims Act in 1980 that federal recognition was granted to three tribes, Penobscot, Passmaquoddy, Houlton Band of Maliseets, but even that has not conveyed to them the rights recognized for other tribes around the country, including the ability to run gambling operations on tribal land. In Maine, tribal governments are treated like municipalities and not as sovereign entities.

Bills have come before the Legislature to put the tribes in Maine on the same footing as federally recognized tribes in other states, but one was tabled and the other, which would have allowed tribes to regulate gambling on Indian land, was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.

At the time, Mills pledged to work with the tribes to overcome her technical objections and address these historical inequities. We urge the administration to continue that work and develop bills that will make a real difference in the lives of tribal people in Maine.

We cannot escape history. Although symbolic, events like Indigenous Peoples Day improve everyone’s understanding of what happened and how it effects our lives today.

This year we should all take the opportunity to deepen our knowledge of the past and commit to building a better future.


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