Editor’s note 03/03/23 at 2:32 p.m.: An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported that Governor Janet Mills campaigned in 2018 on indigenous sovereignty for Maine’s Wabanaki nations. This has been corrected to reflect the truth that the governor campaigned “on improving and repairing Maine’s relationship with local tribes.”
The sovereignty of Maine’s indigenous tribes hangs in the balance, and Bowdoin students have mobilized. On Wednesday, the Bowdoin Democrats collaborated with the Native American Student Association (NASA) to raise awareness about tribal sovereignty laws in Maine and write letters to state legislators demanding justice for Wabanaki people.
At present, Maine’s federally recognized tribes, including the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet and the Mi’kmaq Nation, are granted fewer legal protections than most indigenous tribes in the United States. Since 1980, the Maine Indians Claims Settlement Act has deprived the Wabanaki people of their sovereignty in exchange for their ancestral and culturally significant land. The law also restricts Wabanaki access to government resources including the rights to declare a state of emergency during natural disasters and prosecute non-natives for violence against tribal citizens.
While Governor Janet Mills has taken some recent action to increase access to drinking water and further economic opportunities for the Wabanaki community, the central issue of sovereignty remains unresolved. In 2018, Janet Mills campaigned on improving and repairing Maine’s relationship with local tribes. In 2022, however, she threatened to veto L.D. 1626, a bipartisan law that would have reversed the 1980 restrictions on sovereignty. Federal efforts aiming to afford tribes in Maine the same protections as tribes in other states have also been opposed by Maine Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Angus King (D-ME).
Bowdoin Democrats leader Ryan Kovarovics ’23 believes that because Bowdoin students worked to help elect Janet Mills last fall, they must now continue to hold her, and other government officials, accountable for the issues that they campaigned on. Writing letters to representatives is one way for students to place pressure on topics like indigenous sovereignty.
“This is our way of trying to encourage our lawmakers once they’ve been elected to actually keep their promises and make the change we want to see,” Kovarovics said. “With events like this, we can make indigenous sovereignty a more urgent issue.”
NASA member and Maine resident Graham Harris ’25 spoke about the urgency of fighting for indigenous sovereignty and rights in Maine specifically.
“Only Maine has this issue. Maine tribes don’t get the same benefits and access to resources that all the other tribes across the country get. We are working to alleviate that and remove boundaries for indigenous tribes to put Maine on equal footing with all the other tribes in the country,” Harris said.
There are not any sovereignty bills put before the Maine legislature or the U.S. Congress at present, so Kovarovics maintains that the best way to fight for indigenous sovereignty is to remind officials to prioritize this issue for future legislative purposes. Letters were written to legislators that both supported and opposed L.D. 1626 to amplify the topic’s relevance.
“Whether it’s just reaching out to legislators and reminding them how important this issue is or going up to the State House and holding signs and meeting with representatives, that’s the kind of thing that we can do right now,” Kovarovics said.
Both participants and organizers agreed that the meaning of events like this hosted by the Bowdoin Democrats and NASA goes beyond the individual action of letter writing. The event reflects the Bowdoin community’s larger dedication to engage with causes throughout Maine.
“We get to spend four years here and be part of this community. You may not think that what happens to Passamaquoddy land affects you, but in the end, it does. We’re all part of the same state. We all live in this community, and if we want to embrace the common good at Bowdoin, we should care about the needs of our neighbors. And we have indigenous neighbors who live under unacceptable conditions due to agreements in our government,” Kovarovics said.
Eliza Schotten ’24, the communications and finance director for the Bowdoin Democrats, shared a similar hope for Bowdoin’s engagement with indigenous sovereignty issues in the upcoming academic year and called for a greater acknowledgement of Bowdoin’s history in relation to the Wabakani people.
“The ties to Indigenous sovereignty rights go as deep as Bowdoin and go as far as the entire country,” Schotten said. “When our new president comes, we want to show the administration what we support and what’s really important to us. Indigenous sovereignty is what matters to us, and so by extension, it should be important to the College as well.”
For students looking to engage with this topic further, the Bowdoin Democrats will be hosting an event at the State House later in the semester to canvas and take action against issues including indigenous sovereignty, climate change and immigration rights.