ELLSWORTH — Tensions between the state of Maine and its four Native American tribes have mounted in recent months.
In April, Governor Paul LePage revoked a 2011 order encouraging cooperation between state agencies and the tribes. Last week, three tribes relinquished their seats in the State Legislature and asked the federal government to review the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, the law that has delineated state and tribal jurisdictions for the last 25 years.
Numerous disputes have led to the recent flare-ups, including a lawsuit filed against the state by the Penobscot Nation over its rights to manage the river of the same name. (Activists are now hoping to convince towns along the river, including Bucksport, to withdraw their intervener status in that case. (See accompanying information.)
For all the turmoil, however, recent years have also seen examples of cooperation between the state and tribes.
One such effort is the Maine Wabanaki-State Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which formed in 2011 with LePage’s blessing. It’s headquartered on Ellsworth’s Main Street (given the city’s central location in northern Maine).
Since 2013, TRC has been documenting how the state welfare system has treated — or in many cases, mistreated — children from the Wabanaki tribes, which include the Maliseets, Micmacs, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Nation.
According to Executive Director Charlotte Bacon, the commission has collected 158 written statements from a range of individuals around the state: adopted children, foster parents, state and tribal case workers, to name a few.
The commission’s efforts will culminate at 2 p.m. on June 14 at the Morgan Hill Event Center in Hermon, with a ceremony formally unveiling the TRC’s report and recommendations.
Attending the event will be TRC’s five commissioners: Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, gkisedtanamoogk (of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Mass.), Sandy White Hawk (founding director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute), Carol Wishcamper (a nonprofit consultant) and Gail Werrbach (director of the University of Maine School of Social Work).
Also at the event will be members of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, the cross-cultural collaborative that formed the TRC and will work to carry out its recommended “reconciliations” in the future.
In an interview, Bacon wasn’t able to reveal any of the TRC’s specific findings or recommendations, which will eventually be available online and archived at Bowdoin College.
But she did explain several of the group’s conclusions, including that Native American children have been and continue to be removed from their homes at disproportionate rates.
“Native kids are five times more likely [than non-native kids] to enter foster care,” Bacon said. “It’s still going on, and that’s the issue. We began to look at why. This is about kids, and this is about family, and about Wabanaki families who have had a difficult experience.”
That separation from their homes and families can have a troubling effect on children as they grow up, Bacon said.
The commission’s researchers also found a concept known as “historical trauma” to have affected members of Maine’s four tribes. Coined in the 1980s, the term refers to abuses that have historically been lumped on Native Americans — separation from family and religion, seizure of land, etc. — leading to poor health outcomes, higher suicide rates and more.
“We strongly feel that that is still going on with Maine,” Bacon said.
A third finding by the commission relates to the recent moves by three tribes to assert their sovereignty from Maine government.
The “incredible tangle of laws that sit on top of native people” (regarding issues such as water rights, hunting and gaming) has only exacerbated the “continued racism” toward Maine’s tribes, Bacon said. “You’re looking at conditions that could be described as cultural genocide.”
Tough as those findings may sound, Bacon also commended the efforts of many in the state and tribal foster care and judicial systems. She expressed her appreciation to the many individuals who came forward with difficult stories — and without whom reconciliation may never be possible.
“People spoke about things that happened 70 years ago, 20 years ago, what happens now,” she said. “People were remarkably brave.”
A historical presentation, “The Penobscot River: Ancestral River/Contested Territory,” will be held by members of the Penobscot Nation at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport on Tuesday, June 9, at 6 p.m. All members of the community are invited.
The presentation is being given to clarify for the Bucksport community the issues at stake in the current legal battle between the Penobscots and the state of Maine over fishing rights, Penobscot Nation v. Mills.
Bucksport is currently among several towns and businesses that are listed as interveners in the litigation on behalf of the state. The town of Orono has recently withdrawn as an intervener after learning more about the issues from advocates for the Penobscot Nation.
Members of the Penobscot Nation have appealed to the Bucksport Town Council to withdraw Bucksport as an intervener as well. The Bucksport Council is set to consider the issue later this summer.
For more information, contact Maria Girouard at [email protected].