By Ally Cooper
Thousands participated in the Rally for Wabanaki Rights on Maine’s third celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The virtual event was hosted by the Wabanaki Alliance and involved a combination of advocacy efforts and cultural performances. Key speakers included Wabanaki leaders calling for Gov. Janet Mills to support LD 1626, “An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act.”
The bill seeks to amend the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claim Settlement Act, which has prevented Maine Indigenous Nations from exercising their sovereignty, particularly over taxation and natural resources. LD 1626 was presented by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross earlier this year. It was tabled until the second session of the Maine Legislature, to be addressed next year. According to Jerry Reid, the Mills’ administration’s chief legal counsel, Mills is opposed to the bill as currently written.
During the Rally, Darrell Newell, vice chief of Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, discussed the current condition of the relationship between the Mills administration and the tribal nations. “Gov. Janet Mills remains unwilling to deal with tribes in a sovereign way, in an equal, government-to-government relationship mandated by sacred, inherent, sovereign right. … Tribal-state relations are broken, and are in need of repair. We are in need of strong state leadership to make tribal-state relations a reality.” This is not the first time that Mills has been criticized by Maine’s tribal nations. Over the past decade, Mills has led a legal battle over the Penobscot River, first as attorney general, and then as governor.
Opening communication between the Mills’ administration and Maine’s Indigenous Nations would be a step towards rebuilding a positive relationship, and one change that LD 1626 would implement is a process for alternative dispute resolution, as well as other improvements to tribal-state communication.
Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana concluded the advocacy portion of the rally by saying, “If we don’t implement meaningful changes in this state at a policy level and amend the 1980 Settlement Act, Indigenous Peoples’ Day will feel empty. It will feel like just another broken promise.”
After the Augusta-based rally, John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Wabanaki Alliance, provided resources for grassroots advocacy efforts. Participants were encouraged to call and email the governor’s office to support LD 1626. Hundreds of participants commented on the Facebook livestream that they had contacted the office. At one point, participants noted that the voicemail was full and vowed to try again the next day. The Wabanaki Alliance also has a Take Action Toolkit on their website (wabanakialliance.com/take-action/) which provides resources on LD 1626, including sections on frequently asked questions, talking points, and contacting legislators.
The second half of the event included a variety of speakers and performers. One performance was led by two members of the Miqwapon Drum Group, Leona Alvarado and Amy Joseph. After their performance of “The Welcome Song,” Joseph told the story of receiving her drum as a gift from a tribal elder during her first fast.
Professor Darren Ranco, chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine, discussed university-affiliated programs that support Wabanaki youth, including the Wabanaki Youth in Science (WaYS) program. According to Ranco, the community-based, multi-pronged approach has been a great success, resulting in a 15% increase in Indigenous youth enrolled in science and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees at UMaine. Ranco also shared his research on the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that threatens basketmaking by attacking source trees.
Mikhu Paul presented her work on Cultivating Mother Corn, a program of Gedakina, Inc. The Vermont-based Gedakina is a Native American experiential outdoor education and leadership development nonprofit that focuses on “the challenges and hardships that Native American youth, women, and communities face daily and are rooted in multi-generational exposure to systemic poverty, oppression, and violence.” Cultivating Mother Corn is “a multi-year initiative to recover indigenous food systems and strengthen women and girls’ leadership.” In Maine, the project involves collaboration between Gedakina, Portland Public Schools, and non-Indigenous community groups. The project mostly focuses on preserving Indigenous seed strains and teaching traditional “three sisters” gardening that focuses on corn, bean, and squash.A video recording of the Rally for Wabanaki Rights is available on the Wabanaki Alliance’s Facebook page.