The Penobscot Nation made a bid for tribal sovereignty in 1833. Tribal leaders traveled to Boston, which had power over Maine land at the time, to meet with state politicians. In her book “The Name of War,” historian Jill Lepore said, “The Penobscots’ claims were largely ignored, but while the delegation was spurned at the State House, it was welcomed in the theater district. Instead of regaining their land, the Penobscot were sent on a short walk across Boston Common to attend a performance of ‘Metamora’ at the Tremont Street Theater.”
The play in question starred a white actor playing Metacom, also known as King Philip, whose name is fossilized in the title of the first Anglo-Wabanaki war that lasted from 1675 to 1676. The only credit we can give to this actor is that he played the role wholeheartedly. Lepore reads his performance as a valorization of American identity through the appropriation of Indigenous heritage, only possible through the trope of the ‘vanishing Indian.’ To the Penobscot delegation in attendance, we can only imagine the dissonance between what they lived and what was being acted out to them on stage: a farce of a false history that denied their continued existence.
Over the last ten days, three bills have made their way through the two houses of the Maine legislature. These bills are LD 585, 906 and 1626, which collectively would comprise the largest package of laws upholding Wabanaki sovereignty, health and dignity ever passed by the state, if Governor Janet Mills does not veto them all.
In the past two weeks, I have heard Penobscot and Passamaquoddy leaders speak in the shadow of the State House and at other events. Leaders like Dwayne Tomah, Maggie Dana, Lakotah Sanborn, Sherri Mitchell, Ernie Neptune; elders and young people alike whose names I did not catch have worked for months to have steady, patient dialogue with representatives and senators. They say that the tribes of the Wabanaki confederacy are sovereign and have been for thousands of years, and that Maine does not recognize this, nor does Maine treat their communities as equals. Instead, these activists accuse the state of stripping the Wabanaki confederacy of its jurisdiction and hindering the tribes’ access to clean drinking water.
Governor Mills has repeatedly expressed her intention to veto these bills when they reach her desk. (Supporters are pushing for a veto-proof majority in the houses to keep these bills alive.) During her election in 2018, the Bowdoin Orient briefly reported Mills’ antagonistic relationship with tribal nations. She responded to an audience question on the subject: “I’ve met with tribal leaders, chiefs and councilmembers, and I know that we can work together. We have worked together nationally to protect Maine’s environment and to improve our water quality.” This claim is not reflected in her support of these bills. Mills has not indicated that she works for the tribe’s benefit at moments that don’t also directly benefit Maine political elites.
May I remind you, the Penobscot Nation made a bid for tribal sovereignty in 1833. In 2022—nearly 200 years later—the Penobscot and their sibling tribes are again seeking sovereignty. A veto from Governor Mills, or a failure to push the bills through the houses with a far majority, is equivalent to what happened in Boston in 1833: inviting the tribes to watch as we perform a perverse narrative to ourselves. With a veto, Governor Mills is on stage, figuratively dressed in appropriated garb, as she eulogizes the sovereign Wabanaki to confirm the greatness of Maine.
Holden Turner is a member of the Class of 2021.