Penobscot Indian Nation State Representative Wayne Mitchell and Sara Stevens (D-Bangor) listen to testimony on Wednesday, April 22, 2009, at the Augusta Civic Center. Credit: Kate Collins

Theodore “Wayne” Mitchell, the man who represented the Penobscot Nation in the Maine Legislature for four terms before helping the tribe assert its independence by leaving the State House, died Friday.

Mitchell, 67, “passed away peacefully after a long battle with illness,” according to his obituary.

“The community has suffered a huge loss,” said Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, who grew up across the street from Mitchell on Indian Island and recalled going on hunting and fishing trips with his family.

Francis and a former member of the Legislature, Barry Hobbins, both praised Mitchell’s public service at the state and tribal levels. He served as the Penobscot Nation’s elected representative from 2009 to 2016, but was active in politics long before then, including at the local level on Indian Island.

In particular, they recalled Mitchell’s involvement in the 2015 decision by the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes to pull their representatives from the State House after their relationship with the state deteriorated amid clashes over tribal fishing rights, legal jurisdiction and other issues.

[Tribes withdraw from Maine Legislature]

On the day the tribes announced their withdrawal, Mitchell wore a traditional headdress. Along with other tribal representatives, he vowed that the Penobscot Nation would have more sovereignty going forward and that its delegates would be considered ambassadors of a separate and equal nation.

“If we come back [to the Legislature], it will be on our terms,” he said at the time.

As a tribal representative, Mitchell could not vote in the full Legislature, but he did have a vote in legislative committees on which he served.

“It was a tough decision,” Francis said. “I really wanted to focus on getting rid of the perception that tribes are a political subdivision of the state. Wayne was a big part of that conversation. He was supportive of the new approach, despite it meaning he wouldn’t be in the Legislature anymore. I thought it was a pretty selfless point of view.”

Hobbins, who now serves as the state’s public advocate for utility ratepayers, said he considered Mitchell a friend and deeply admired the dedication he showed to his tribe that day, as well as the courage it took to wear his traditional garb in the State House.

“He had a stature within the Maine Legislature and a respect for the process,” Hobbins said. “When it came to a point where that process was not mutually respected by the Legislature, he chose his values and his roots. Even though we might disagree with those decisions, from a position of politics or of established practices, he was speaking from his heart and soul and to me, that says it all about him. “

Mitchell was involved in many legislative debates over the years and laid the groundwork for a number of policy changes that helped the Penobscot Nation and other tribes, according to Francis.

Although his last term in the Legislature officially ended in 2016, for example, his work on criminal justice issues contributed to the Legislature’s passage of a bill this year that would give tribal courts the ability to prosecute nontribal members for some cases of domestic violence against members, according to Francis. Gov. Janet Mills has not yet signed the bill.

In 2009, he led the passage of a bill that banned the use of the derogatory term “squaw” in place names and two resolutions to honor Louis and Andrew Sockalexis, two cousins from the Penobscot Nation whose success in baseball and track and field respectively had been overlooked.

“He was a unique individual,” Hobbins said. “He had the ability to negotiate with mainstream legislators but also to be a significant advocate for the positions of the Penobscot Nation and all tribes.”

Hobbins also said that Mitchell pushed for the civil rights of groups beyond the tribes, such as when he backed legislation to allow same-sex marriage in Maine.