This July Fourth, we celebrate our freedom as memorialized in the Declaration of Independence. Our ancestors declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While we celebrate securing these rights for ourselves as settlers, we ignore what we have done to our allies the Wabanaki people, the original people of this land, who helped us to secure these rights.
The Wabanaki flourished in what we recognize as Maine. The many distinct people who once called this area home have been reduced to four federally recognized tribes: the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation. The four resilient, surviving tribes battle the state government every day to live free as their beliefs, cultures, values, spirituality, traditions and ancestors inform them to live. Why does Maine and the United States withhold from them what we declared 241 years ago as the inherent rights of all human beings?
European colonialism and genocide was legally, morally and politically supported by an idea that originated with church leaders centuries ago known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The doctrine gave permission to the countries of Western Europe, comprised of Christian majorities, legal and moral cover to commit horrific, evil acts. Several papal bulls, edicts of the Catholic popes, articulated the concept of the Doctrine of Discovery. The doctrine sanctioned European taking of Wabanaki and other original people’s land on the premise that non-Christians did not merit treatment as human beings equal to the Christian invaders.
The doctrine has been repudiated by several American churches and the World Council of Churches. The United Nations denounced it in the preamble to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stating “all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.” Our legal system, however, has upheld the essence of the doctrine and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on several occasions that the original people of this land have a mere right of occupancy, most notably in Johnson v. M’Intosh.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence complained that the king had abolished “our most valuable laws” and altered “fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.” The signers later assert, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”
Yet, the Wabanaki have the very same experience with the state of Maine, most recently exemplified on March 2 of this year. That day the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee had invited the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission to make a presentation including briefing the committee members on a recently released report exploring the creation of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. Following the commission’s presentation and the sharing by Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis of an important letter written by the U.S. Department of Interior acknowledging problems with the act, Wabanaki leaders were subjected to hostile and paternalistic questioning from some members of the committee. In response, the Wabanaki leaders walked out of the proceeding. The committee demonstrated little interest in exploring the deep injustices embedded in the act. The commission, the body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, has found that “The Acts have created structural inequities that have resulted in conditions that have risen to the level of human rights violations.”
Human rights, including marriage equality, freedom of the press, religious freedom and women’s issues, are being passionately defended in this country. I contend the right of the original people of this land to exercise self-determination and to govern their citizens as they deem appropriate should be at the top of the agenda for all people striving for a more just, equitable world.
We cannot undo the wrongs of the past, but the course of human events does flow on and there is a path for affirmation, respect and the hope that we can all finally grant justice and dignity to native people. On this Independence Day, let us rededicate ourselves to grant life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all of our people.
Cassandra Wright is active with the Maine Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations. She lives in Orono.