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A new report tracks the history of state control over the Wabanaki tribes

Donna Loring
Michael C. York
AP via BDN
Donna Loring

A sweeping tribal sovereignty bill was a top priority for tribal leaders this legislative session.

Yet while the legislature passed bills around online sports betting and giving the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over its water supply, the larger sovereignty measure appears to likely be headed for defeat after a threat of a veto from Gov. Janet Mills.

Earlier this month, legislators received a report from Maine's Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

The analysis, called "One Nation, Under Fraud: A Remonstrance," traces the history of how Maine mistreated and exerted control of the Wabanaki tribes, and also uncovers new documents describing how that control continued over decades.

For more on the report, Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg spoke with one of its authors, Hon. Donna Loring, a Penobscot elder and former senior advisor to Gov. Janet Mills.

Feinberg: I wanted to start with the first sentence of the introduction of your report, where you write, "Maine's is a history of fraud." And from here, you really trace that history — you go from a land deal in 1833 that appears to have been negotiated under false pretenses, to court cases in the years that followed. Why did you feel like it was important to lay out the history in this way?

Loring: Right from the very beginning, the signing of the treaty with the Penobscot in 1820, right from the very beginning, Maine sought to isolate the tribes from federal protection. And you know, they knew very well about the 1790 intercourse act, but they chose to ignore it and make their own agreements with the tribes. And ever since that first move, they've been keeping the tribes separate and isolated from the rest of Indian country. And I call it a theory of isolation, control and elimination. And that's what they've done. And that's what they continue to do.

So one piece of this report that I wanted to discuss were these documents from 1942 that you uncovered. There's testimony from state leaders where they basically bemoan having to spend money on tribes and say that they probably owe them quite a bit. And there's this report that made some pretty striking recommendations: to take away state assistance from some tribal members, to define an Indian as one with "at least one-quarter Indian blood" and institute vocational training. What was the significance of all this?

They wanted to cut down on the number of citizens of the tribe. The Attorney General, at that time, was Frank Cowan. His testimony was, "They're just children who will never develop. Get them working for themselves." And basically, the plan was, if you give require a quarter blood status, eventually, they're going to disappear, not going to be any left. That's going to be one of the things that we recommend. Also, that if an Indian woman marries a white man, that those kids, the offspring, are not tribal members anymore. So they recommended all this stuff. And that's the very definition of the United Nations, genocide. So they're eliminating a population.

What was it like for you, when you came across all of this in your research? Things that hadn't really come to light before?

There's a verse in the Bible that says, "When I was a child, I could see through a glass dimly," or "darkly," or whatever. It was kind of like that, being lifted. And it was a clarity that, these things that tribal members had grown up with, in poverty, you wonder, where did this come from? How did this happen to us? You know, are we so bad? Are we so stupid?

Well, here's the answer. And it wasn't us. It wasn't the fact that we were stupid, or that we were imbeciles. It was the fact that this government, basically, were parasites, living off us. Not the other way around. In these conversations, it was brought up, it was said, the Indians have all of these allies, who think that they're being treated badly. So we really need to turn the story around. And that was discussed, it was discussed in the transcripts. It was definitely a strategic plan on the state's part to do this. The end game being to make the tribes disappear, and make their obligations to the tribes disappear. And to do it through legal decisions, policies, and just, any way they could figure out to do it.

I wanted to ask you about events from earlier this week, where Wabanaki leaders acknowledged that the sweeping sovereignty bill in the legislature is unlikely to become law after a near-certain veto threat from Gov. Janet Mills. When you reflect on the full history of the relationship between the state and tribes, as you just described, how far would that bill have gone towards healing some of those relations?

I think if you want to heal those relations, you get rid of the whole Land Claims Settlement (Act), because that's a fraud in itself. No, with that record, and that detail of fraud, there was no good faith effort on the state's part in anything. From signing the treaty, all the way up to the Settlement Act. As far as I'm concerned, I don't know if there's a there's a word for it, but in criminal law, it's fruit of the poisonous tree. I think that's what this all is.

When you look at the fact that this bill that you're saying you didn't even feel like necessarily went far enough, it still faced such pushback from the state — how does that have you feeling about the future of restoring sovereignty? Are you any more optimistic or pessimistic about things?

It's a continuous, ongoing fight. It's one that tribes cannot stop. They have to have hope. They can't stop fighting, because if they do, they will be eliminated. We don't have a choice. So we choose hope.

After looking at this full history here, how would you describe the relations between the state and tribes right now?

At one point, the things that we're discussing right now wouldn't even get out. They'd be kept totally secret. So there is a movement, progressive movement forward. I'm hoping — probably, this is really, maybe too positive — but I'm hoping that things will change in my lifetime. I don't have much time left, but in my lifetime, I hope it does.

Donna Loring is one of the authors of the newly published report, "One Nation, Under Fraud: A Remonstrance," from the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations. The Maine Law Review will be publishing a version of the report next year.