Anyone who even casually follows the news regarding the state’s relationship with the Wabanaki tribes probably could be forgiven for assuming that the relationship is not much more than a dead end for conflict and strife.

Clarissa Sabattis, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, was the first of five chiefs to speak at the State of the Tribes Address to a joint session of the Maine House and Senate on March 16. “We do not own the land,” she said. “We only borrow it from our future generations.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

To be sure, the historical relationship — if you can call it that — can only charitably be described as awful. For hundreds of years after European settlers first made contact with the civilizations of North America, the interactions have been marked with violence and forced assimilation following conquest. That history has informed how the Wabanaki — the People of the Dawn — have fared in lopsided interactions that for the vast majority of that time uniformly favored first the European colonial governments and, later, their successors.

There is a ton of activity happening now in the Maine State House to readjust that relationship. This is not new. For decades, with indisputably mixed results, the state of Maine government has worked with the Wabanaki to reconsider and reset its relationships. As has been described in these pages, the progress has been at times both promising and frustrating. The shadow of litigation has both sped and slowed progress; the status quo has also appeared stubbornly resilient, even when progress has been made.

This last point gives us hope: The work goes on. While tribal officials and advocates disagree with administrators and policymakers, and policymakers and administrators disagree with each other, and what is simple to some is forebodingly complicated to others — and even when the discussions are punctuated with the sharp report of slamming doors and vicious recriminations — the discussions go on.

From our vantage point, this is the real progress to be hopeful about. We are only too cognizant of the reality that it’s only been in our lifetimes that the Wabanaki were first permitted to vote in state elections. Maine was the first place in the world — yes, in the world — to charter a Truth and Reconciliation Commission by agreement of all the affected parties in bearing witness to abuses toward Native children in the state’s child welfare system. The work to heal those wrongs continues. In recent years, the Legislature has been moved to embrace a number of statutory changes, and continues to contemplate more, in moving toward further strengthening the autonomy of Maine’s Native peoples.

Despite cautious reservations, state government — the governor and the Legislature — continue to seek ways to end those circumstances that cultivate mistrust. We hasten to point out that this takes time. The Wabanaki, too, have been tireless in speaking up for their people. In our work on the Episcopal Diocesan Committee on Indian Relations, we work for justice for the Wabanaki and for prayerful understanding of the broken legacy that was described by the Maine State-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the result of institutional racism and cultural genocide.

Clarissa Sabattis, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, spoke of the land, so often the subject of dispute in this fraught relationship, in her address to the Legislature this winter: “We do not own the land,” she said. “We only borrow it from our future generations.” As our leaders return to the table of discussion again, we hope and pray for forbearance, vision and, most of all, patience. In that way, we can change that historical relationship from that of conqueror and conquered — to neighbors. We owe that to future generations.

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