GOULDSBORO — Last Friday, thousands gathered in Washington, D.C., for the first ever Indigenous Peoples March.
The march, meant to bring awareness of issues affecting Native men, women, and children, sparked smaller marches around the country.
In Maine, home to the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy, one group braved the frigid weather in Prospect Harbor for its own small march organized by Acadia Action.
“We are in solidarity with the national march that’s going on in D.C. right now,” said Susan Dickson-Smith of Acadia Action. “There are a lot of things going on in eastern Maine that make it important for us to be here: water rights, violence against women protections and just generally a desire to be recognized as the sovereign nations that they are.”
The small gathering, which took place in front of the Prospect Harbor Women’s Club, included residents from Gouldsboro, Lamoine and even as far away as South Berwick in York County.
Acadia Action was started just after the 2017 Women’s March and has participated in other national actions.
Among the most important issues to the marchers was the issue of violence against Native women.
According to the nonprofit Indian Law Resource Center, more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. Since 2016, more than 7,000 Native women have been murdered or reported missing.
“The rate of sexual assault, of trafficking, of the murder and disappearance of indigenous women are so disproportionate,” Dickson-Smith said.
That sentiment was echoed by fellow Acadia Action member Shemaya Laurel.
“The driving issue for me has been the missing and murdered indigenous women, which has been happening across this country and Canada,” Laurel said. “It’s shocking the number of women and girls that get killed or just disappear. They also don’t actually have violence-against-women protections on the reservations.”
When the federal Violence Against Women Act, which expired in December due to the government shutdown, was reauthorized in 2013, it was updated to allow tribal prosecution of certain non-Indians accused of a crime.
The Maine Settlement Act of 1980, however, says that federal Indian laws that would affect the state’s criminal, civil or regulatory jurisdiction do not apply to the state unless Maine’s tribes are specifically named.
“Janet Mills, when she was attorney general, was not supportive of making an adjustment to that law that would make it easier to keep Native women safe,” Laurel said. “So we’re hoping now that as governor she won’t just say she is bound by how the law was written.”
The marchers also addressed issues of water rights on Indian reservations.
“The Penobscot especially have been fighting for water rights on their river,” Dickson-Smith said. “As attorney general, Janet Mills was involved in a lawsuit challenging their sovereignty over the Penobscot River.”
The lawsuit in question was a 2017 ruling that the Penobscot Nation’s territory did not include the river itself.
While Mills has had a somewhat fraught relationship with Maine’s Native American tribes, the women with Acadia Action hope to see improved relations moving forward.
“There are really a lot of issues percolating right now,” Dickson-Smith said. “I think it’s important for us non-indigenous residents of their territory to follow indigenous leadership, and do what we can to support issues that are important to them.”