INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — In a ceremony Friday night that was both forward-looking and steeped in tradition, the people of the Penobscot Indian Nation officially installed their new elected officials.
Held in Sockalexis Center, the traditional installation ceremony featured some elements that date back thousands of years to the era of traditional chiefs, and others to 1816, when the tribe inducted its first elected tribal governor and lieutenant governor, according to Butch Phillips, a tribal elder and spiritual leader.
Friday night’s inductees included Chief Kirk Francis, who is beginning his second two-year term, Vice Chief Bill Thompson, who is serving his first term, and new and re-elected tribal councilors.
The tribe also has a new representative to the Maine Legislature, Wayne Mitchell, though he was unable to attend Friday’s ceremony because of illness.
Among the elements of the ceremony were traditional drumming and song, and a smudging, or spiritual cleansing, ceremony in which the wing of an eagle was used to spread smoke from a small pot of burning sweet grass over the newly elected officials and their guests.
Tribal elder Arnold Neptune conducted a sacred pipe ceremony in which rising smoke was used to convey the tribe’s thoughts and prayers to their ancestors and the Great Spirit.
During the event, Francis called his continuing role as chief “one of extreme pride and honor.”
“When you think about the people who have sat in this seat before me and this tribe’s rich history, it’s surreal that this is happening to me, and I’m extremely grateful,” he said.
In his remarks, he touched upon two major themes he said he would continue to emphasize during his current tenure.
ä Economic success.
“This is extremely important and I remain committed to this effort as it is imperative to our success as a people. Again, economic success for us would not focus on individual wealth but give us the tools to provide an adequate quality of life to our citizens and long-term fiscal stability for our nation,” Francis said.
To help ensure that success, he said, tribal leaders are putting the finishing touches on Penobscot Indian Nation Enterprises, the tribe’s economic and business development corporation, which was federally chartered in 2005. PINE’s federal status as an American Indian-owned entity gives it and its partners bidding advantages on defense and other government contracts.
“It has taken some time to get our board properly developed, to put a structure in place that maximizes our potential, but we are now there and I’m very excited about the opportunities,” he said.
ä Maintaining Penobscot tribal culture and asserting Indian rights.
“One thing I have learned is that there is nothing we do that [our culture] is not a critical part of. It is who we are, and without that being incorporated in our day-to-day functions, I believe we stop being Penobscots.”
Tribal leaders have taken and are taking steps to ensure their culture and traditions thrive long into the future.
Francis, however, said it was his personal aim to uphold the rights of his people.
“To me, this is the most important. It is important that we always fight vigorously against anyone who tries to minimize our status as Indian people,” he said, drawing applause from his audience.
“And you have my word that as long as I’m the leader of this great nation, we have apologized for who we are for the last time.
“Our citizens should hold their heads high and be able to say proudly, when asked, ‘I am a Penobscot Indian,’” he said. “And any organization or entity that does not give [us] the respect that we deserve simply will not be in our life.
“We are not children that need to be told what to do, but rather a complex, capable government that has been here for thousands of years with a clear long record of success during [a] period of time when there was no interference” from other levels of government, he said.
His remarks alluded to the strained relationship Maine’s Indian tribes have had with state officials in recent years.
“Others have no right to direct the Penobscot people. Our ancestors did too much for us to drop this ball,” he said.