In her news release recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day, posted online Oct. 12, Gov. Mills echoes statements made the two previous years about this new state holiday replacing Columbus Day. This year, for example, she credited “the first stewards of this land we love” for “their many contributions to our great state.”

She used similar words in 2019, the first year that Mainers honored the Wabanaki people who’ve lived here for 12,000 years instead of the Italian explorer whose so-called “discovery” of the already-settled lands of North and South America set into motion centuries of colonization, genocide and attempted cultural erasure.

Curiously, though, with each passing year, Gov. Mills’ language has become vaguer in her references to those “first stewards” of Maine: In this year’s statement our governor fails to use either the general name “Wabanaki tribes,” as she did last year, or specific tribal names mentioned when she signed the bill changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Instead, she uses the pronouns “those” and “their” to refer to the Indigenous people of this land we now call Maine.

It raises the question: Why is that? Why not use the names of the very people this day is intended to honor?

We would hope it’s an unintended diminishing of reference to our Wabanaki neighbors, but we noticed something else about Gov. Mills’ Oct. 12 statement: Her acknowledgment of actions we might take to improve relations with the Wabanaki tribes also has become fainter.

Here’s what she said April 26, 2019, upon signing the bill changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day: “I believe we are stronger when we recognize we have erred. I believe we are stronger when we seek a fuller and deeper understanding of our history. I believe we are stronger when we lift up the voices of those harmed and marginalized in the past.”

Like many of us who live in Maine, we were proud to hear our governor make such clear acknowledgments to the Wabanaki leaders present at that ceremony. We were hopeful, too, the politicians present for the occasion would heed that call and commit themselves to the real work that lay ahead. Otherwise, Gov. Mills’ words would be just another instance of the litany of empty promises the Wabanaki people have known all too well over Maine’s 200-year history.

A few months later, when a task force co-led by then-Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, began working on potential reforms to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act, we thought: Right on! Likewise, when the task force delivered its 22 recommendations to remove legal roadblocks in the settlement act that have hindered the Wabanaki tribes’ efforts to address economic development, health, educational and social inequities on reservations across the state.

A bill based on those recommendations, L.D. 1626, has languished in the last two legislative sessions – passed over first because of COVID and then because it was seen as too complex to consider in the waning days last spring before adjournment.

One might think Gov. Mills would highlight that bill as the critical next step in healing “those harmed and marginalized in the past.” Doing so would demonstrate she understands how wrong it is to continue to allow the 1980 Settlement Act to deny self-governance to the Wabanaki tribes and keep them from pursuing economic development opportunities and leveraging the benefits and funding provided by federal law to the other 570 federally recognized tribes in our nation.

Instead, Mills chose to highlight a number of legitimate improvements in the tribal-state relationship that have occurred since she became governor. To be sure, those are worthy accomplishments. But they are incremental and they do not go far enough to achieve the systemic changes that will truly make a difference for our Wabanaki neighbors.

We need action – not self-congratulatory words or feel-good references to Maine’s “first stewards” that completely gloss over the many ways our state continues to keep the Wabanaki people under its thumb as if they were no more than municipalities. Passing L.D. 1626 would be the best way to fulfill the governor’s pledge to “recommit ourselves to our shared home and future with respect and trust for one another.”


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