Maine is the whitest State in America and it has been very white for at least the last two hundred years. Of course, it had to clear the land and get rid of those Indians who were blocking progress. It failed to exterminate us by outright killing through biological warfare and burning villages. But it has never stopped trying.
Moving into the 21st century the state continues to try to exterminate us in various ways that are just as harmful. What really puzzles and shocks me is they are getting away with it. When other minorities rally and complain they get attention and usually manage to change things. Not so in Maine.
Maine has kept the tribes in isolation from the rest of Indian Country ever since it became a state. It has done this by treating our tribal governments and us as though we do not exist. The State of Maine policy making body — the state legislature — together with the executive, judicial, and attorney general’s office have all teamed up to keep us isolated, poor and dependent. That’s the way of colonialism. We have fought them for almost two centuries. We are still here.
We negotiated a settlement—the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA)—which we thought would take us out from under the heavy hand of the state but the Act turned into a club that was used to beat us down and keep us isolated and poor.
I always thought that once the true intent of this state’s actions were shown and people could see what they were doing to us, the good common people of Maine and the rest of the country would step in and stop it. It didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen in 1965 when a Passamaquoddy man named Peter Francis, while protecting young Passamaquoddy girls from being raped, was murdered at Pleasant Point by five white hunters from Massachusetts. The story made headlines throughout the state and even in the national news. The whole country watched as only one of the white hunters was tried and found innocent to the cheers of the courtroom. The story would never have gotten out except for a naive Jewish lawyer name Don Gellers, who was framed and disgraced and had to leave Maine because he tried to help those Indians.
It didn’t happen when people threatened to shoot us during the MICSA negotiations because the state created so much fear around landowners losing their homes to those Indians that people were ready to take up arms and shoot every one of us. Do you think the good church people would step in and stop this frenzy? Nope, they sat back and watched it unfold.
It didn’t happen when we put a bill in the legislature to create the first Maine casino back in 2003 and we were denied. The people of Maine voted against us and for the horses. They said they wanted the tradition of horse racing to stay alive. They said they wanted the money to stay in Maine even though they hated gambling. Well, an out-of-state firm bought the racetrack and most of the profits go out of state. They said racetracks and slot machines were fine but there would never be a full-blown casino. Now there’s a full blown casino in Bangor and another in Oxford and most likely others on the way, but do you think the first people who dared to put the idea forward got to build a casino? No. They stole our idea and made mega bucks out of it. Scratch tickets galore as well as Powerball now exist in Maine too. But the Indians were never allowed a casino. Poverty still is our number one employer.
It didn’t happen recently when the tribes asked for a seat on the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees for the second time. There are permanent seats at the academy’s board of trustees’ table for the county sheriffs, the state police, municipal police, towns and ex-officio bureaucrats such as the attorney general, the district attorney, etc., but nothing for the tribes even though the MICSA mandates that our police officers to be trained in the State Municipal Police Academy. The state legislature’s hearing committee voted against our inclusion again this year.
What did happen, however, was that four days after we testified for the seat, the academy director called all the tribal police chiefs and told them his board was going to investigate the overtime of their reserve officers and they may lose their officer certifications. That’s discrimination — big time! It is worrisome that this director is in charge of training the state and tribes’ police officers; with no tribal seat this director can do whatever he wants to the tribal police officers. There is no one representing the communities of color and not one person of color on the 17-member board. It is worrisome given the effects nationwide of police actions against black people and people of color.
What also happened recently was that Republican State Sen. Michael Willette wrote some hate-filled, crude and bigoted comments on his Facebook page, which was open for public viewing. Here are some samples: He posted a photo of President Obama allegedly saying, “Why haven’t I done anything about ISIS? Because I’ll deal with them at the family reunion.” He also posted an alleged quote by Putin saying, “Obama’s diplomacy is like that of a pigeon playing Chess who shits on the board.” He posted this charmer about Hillary Clinton: “I feel that what Obama is putting the US through will have its roots in her big ole ass and she won’t be able to shake it.” He also aimed his hate speech at Muslims: “Round them up and air drop them back into the rubble and hell holes from whence they came. The religion of Islam preaches deceit and lying for survival and to justify the survival of the Islamic religion. They are very, very good at this, and other ways of making you feel complacent and comfortable with them.”
When Willette’s postings came to light, Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the NAACP branch in Portland, Maine, and I decided we could not remain silent. We held a press conference at the State House and Rabbi Isaacs also stood with us, as did the Democratic Senate minority leader. We told the press that Willette’s conduct cannot and should not go unpunished by the state Senate. This man Willette chaired a committee. His influence and hate would be allowed to direct the committee’s public policy decisions. I called for the Senate to censure him and remove him from his chairmanship. At first they were just going to ignore Willette’s actions, but an outcry from people in his own district forced him to apologize on the floor of the Senate. He said he acted before he thought and was sorry for acting. What? He never apologized for his words. The Senate president was satisfied with that but we were not. Willette promptly returned to his Facebook page and made it private – then kept on posting his hate-filled and bigoted comments. He was taken to task for his actions and he resigned his seat. The Senate then passed an order requiring all senators to attend an educational training session on diversity and multiculturalism. But guess what happened there? Three or four senators stood up and spoke about how important it was to treat others with respect — we’re all immigrants after all, they said — and that Africans, Asians and Mexicans should all be respected. Not one of them mentioned the tribes.
So, for a brief moment in time the ugly raceburg surfaced again in the State of Maine; it was right there in clear view for everyone to see. And what happened? The tail wagged the dog. The bigoted and hate-filled white Senator seized control and got to make his own apology and voluntarily submit his own chairmanship resignation for the common good. What a good guy! And the Senate? Well, the senators got out of it without censuring a member and without taking a stand against racism and bigotry. Senate rules state any one of those senators could have risen and asked for censure. Not one of them did.
And so here we are – the Wabanaki Tribes in Maine isolated from the rest of Indian Country and trapped on this raceburg.
Donna Loring is an author, playwright, and Penobscot Tribal Elder.