Our country celebrates the extraordinary civil rights achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday with a national holiday commemorating his birthday. In that same spirit, the Committee on Indian Relations of the Episcopal church urges us to recognize that considerable effort is still required to eliminate discrimination and racism in our society. We have our own unique racial injustices to redress in Maine. The injustices inflicted upon our Wabanaki brothers and sisters are as morally reprehensible and opposite our understanding of a loving God as are the evil acts committed against African Americans.
On Dec. 3, Penobscot Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell offered a vision of a Maine released from the bondage of racism as the Maine House of Representatives considered a resolution denouncing acts of hate and violence. The resolution was prompted by actions directed against President-elect Barack Obama. Rep. Mitchell declared, “We are not born racists. Our soul, mind and heart enter this world pure, unstained from the twisted constructs of a human social convention such as racism.
“Sadly, racism, prejudice and hate are all learned, and these unfortunate attitudes get passed from generation to generation. My hope, here today, is that one day soon it will vanish from Maine society, and one day our children will need to consult a historical document or dictionary to learn what the awful word racism means, or for that matter, be shocked that such human behavior could have ever existed.”
In stark contrast to our state’s proud heritage as a spur in the Underground Railroad, Maine has the distinction of being the last state in the country, in 1967, to grant the indigenous residents the right to vote. During the first 160 years of her statehood, Maine denied sovereignty to the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Indian Nation. The Aroostook Band of Micmacs endured 11 more years of oppression, until they finally gained federal recognition in 1991.
The United States Commission on Civil Rights examined the Wabanaki plight and published a report in December 1974 titled “Federal and State Services and the Maine Indian.” Gov. Kenneth Curtis wrote in a foreword of the report, “… it is the intention of my administration to continue to work to guarantee that the Indians of Maine have equal access to the quality of life to which all Maine people aspire, but until that access is fully opened and free of obstructions, there is no question that the ‘trail of tears’ will go on and its specter will haunt us, and Maine and the nation will have failed to fulfill their just obligation to the Indians of this state.”
While living conditions have improved in three decades, a vast gulf still remains between quality of life for indigenous people and most other population groups in Maine.
The Maine Tribal-State Work Group reported findings and recommendations last January. It stated, “All four Tribes possess life expectancy averages more than 20 years less than the Maine population at large. Tribal unemployment rates range from 15 percent to 70 percent compared to neighboring populations of 5 percent to 8 percent. Maine Indian household incomes average less than $20,000 in some areas, far below statewide averages. Indian Health Services spent on average $2,130 per capita on medical care for Indian people in 2005 compared to a nationwide average of $6,423.”
People who wish to eliminate discrimination, racism and injustice in Maine, and people who care about the welfare of others need to ask, “What can be done to address these huge discrepancies in the standard of living experienced by the Wabanaki population groups in Maine?” There are remedies available. Maine state government can cast off its overseer role toward the Wabanaki people. Our legislators and other state leaders can support the tribes’ inherent sovereignty and right to self-determination.
The Maine Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, in 1974, recommended that, “… State and Federal governments reexamine their policies toward Native Americans in Maine and elsewhere, and affirm the inherent right of Indian self-determination and tribal sovereignty.” What the Maine Advisory Committee recommended 35 years ago still holds true today.
Maine state government leaders must reach out to the Wabanaki people and offer genuine policy changes to strengthen Wabanaki tribal sovereignty. Should our state leaders fail to act responsibly, Maine may become as infamous in Indian country as the well-known civil rights battlefields of the 1950s and 1960s.
We can do more. Let us further honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by loving all of our neighbors, by seeking justice for all people, and by eliminating our racism. Let us treat our Wabanaki brothers and sisters fairly, respectfully and kindly. Let us treat others as we wish to be treated.
Pamela VanWechel of Southwest Harbor is a teacher. She serves as co-chair of the Committee on Indian Relations, a work group of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.