By Rebecca Scarborough

On January 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – observed the third Monday of January each year – the Greater Bangor Area Branch of the NAACP and the University of Maine Alumni Association co-hosted “The State of Civil Rights in Maine.”  Maulin Dana, the Tribal Ambassador of the Penobscot Nation; State Representative Richard Evans, MD;  and State Representative Rachel Talbot Ross, assistant majority leader of the Maine House of Representatives.

Ambassador Maulin Dana, the Tribal Ambassador of the Penobscot Nation, spoke about the state of civil rights for Indigenous tribes in Maine. She described the current situation as “complicated” and “messy” and noted a lack of trust between tribes and the government of Maine, partly resulting from the disastrous 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. The 1980 Act did not recognize the sovereignty of Maine tribes, instead setting up the tribes as municipalities, Dana explained. The result was that Maine’s tribes have fewer rights than other tribes nationwide. At the time of signing, tribes were living in poverty, and the government promised to provide resources and money. The government also told tribal leaders that the Act could be amended, but that has not happened. This legislative session three tribal sovereignty bills will be considered by the legislature. These bills include LD 1626, LD 554, and LD 585.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke about the importance of “radical structural changes” to address racial inequality, State Representative Evans reminded panelists.  He also said that even though some of U.S. history is shameful, that history must be widely known in order for it not to be repeated. Evans described three areas of racial inequality: (1) racial disparities in access to resources, such as voting rights, education, or healthcare; (2) individual prejudices and biases; and (3) internalized racism, defined as when oppressed groups begin to believe negative stereotypes about themselves. Evans said that the public often focuses on the first area and ignores the second. As an example, he mentioned new legislation in nineteen states that would limit voting rights – in essence the “shredding” of the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “right before our eyes.” Evans called on attendees to see the plights of others, step outside of themselves, and “do what is right.”

State Representative Talbot Ross spoke about what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “urgency of now,” and challenged attendees to think about immediate ways to address inequality. She noted that the Maine State legislature will now include Racial Impact Statements on some bills this session for the first time. Like fiscal or environmental impact statements, Racial Impact Statements will measure whether a bill would lessen, maintain, or heighten inequality if passed – in essence elevating ‘equity’ to a first tier of consideration when considering a bill. She noted the work of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Maine Tribal Populations, explaining that for the first time in Maine history systemic racism is “front and center” at a policy level. The Commission is working to establish a Truth-Telling and Truth-Seeking process based on Truth and Reconciliation groups used with the Wabanaki Community.

Representative Talbot Ross encouraged attendees to contact Senator Collins right away to urge support of voting rights legislation at the federal level.