I commend President Barack Obama for recently holding an important meeting with the nation’s tribal leaders. As chief executives of our respective governments, we both took oaths of office. While I swore to uphold the laws of my people, my obligations to the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians run much deeper than law. I must do everything in my power to protect the Maliseet culture, ancient traditions, customary practices and spirituality given to us by our revered ancestors. No group is more important to me and my fellow Maliseets in the continual struggle to retain our distinct character as a Wabanaki People than our children.
Our children truly are our present and our future. The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians has struggled against great forces, especially the state of Maine, to protect and nurture our children.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Maliseet children involved with the child welfare system were being placed at alarmingly high rates with non-Indian families, threatening the existence of our tribe. Without aggressive intervention by our tribal government, we were in danger of losing an entire generation of children. What future does any people have without its children?
As we have battled the state of Maine to respect the Indian Child Welfare Act, the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and our inherent sovereignty given to us by GheChe’Nawais, we have received no legal or political support from the United States which has a trust responsibility to defend the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians from harm. What we have accomplished to defend our right to exist as a sovereign people has come from our tribe and support from our Wabanaki neighbors.
Yes, we have received money. But what the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians most needs from the president as the chief executive of the U.S. is for his government to cast off the political neglect we have experienced for the last 29 years since the signing of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and instead become a concerned, dependable, and engaged ally as we face assaults on our sovereignty.
The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was not solely about settling our land claim against the U.S. The act was about establishing a new relationship between sovereigns grounded in respect and trust. It was to be a national model, but it failed.
The United States has been conspicuously missing as we native people alone have struggled to have the state of Maine respect the intent of the settlement act.
The first treaty the fledgling U.S. executed was the Treaty of Watertown with my people and the Micmacs on July 19, 1776. When the nascent U.S. was facing a global superpower in the form of the British Empire, the Maliseet people answered the call, joining you in arms to secure your country’s freedom. When we were not citizens and could not vote we came as allies to your defense in subsequent wars.
Now, we need this country to come to our defense in justly addressing the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. I ask that the president and this country act with honor through an engaged presence and participation in what the United States has committed itself to do.
Brenda Commander is the chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.