Maulian Dana shares a smile with her father, Barry, in 2018, before speaking to the Skowhegan High School board in an effort to get them to stop using the Indian Mascot. Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Kirlin

A 16-year-old Maulian Dana sat in the gallery of the Portland Superior Courthouse as her father, then-chief of the Penobscot Nation, fought a lawsuit from Maine’s paper mills that wanted the tribes to relinquish their internal documents in an attempt to control the regulation of water quality.

The lawsuit stirred up old feuds between Maine’s Native American tribes and the state government, calling into question what rights the tribal nations had under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act signed 20 years earlier.

Dana watched as the judge handed down the ruling that found her father and two other Passamaquoddy chiefs in contempt of court for not turning over their tribes’ internal records, and sentenced them to jail until they complied with Maine law.

It didn’t seem right to her. They were defending tribal sovereignty. “It was some real injustice … things that we [thought] we were past as a society, we just weren’t,” she said.

“I was thinking, ‘he’s protecting the river, he’s protecting our people and sovereignty’,” Dana said.

The tribes later agreed to turn over the documents, but not without objection. They gathered together and marched to deliver the records from Norridgewock to the State House in Augusta — a 37-minute drive that equates to 10 hours on foot.

“It was kind of a big protest march for sovereignty,” Dana said.

It was this pivotal moment, soon followed by many others, that inspired Dana to enter the fight for tribal sovereignty and justice — a passion that would later become her career.

Her commitment to tribal justice hasn’t gone unnoticed. This year, the 35-year-old activist — who became the first-ever Penobscot Nation Ambassador in 2017 — was named a recipient of the Maryann Hartman Award, an annual award presented to local women who embody the spirit of the late University of Maine professor and humanitarian.

“The Maryann Hartman Award honors the spirit, achievement, and zest for life that Hartman epitomized,” according to Hartman’s biography. It recognizes the accomplishments of Maine women in the arts, politics, education and community service.

”The work of the women selected provides inspiration to others and demonstrates the levels of attainment now possible for women,” the biography said.

Dana’s drive to become a leader in the Penobscot Nation started young.

She remembers seeing the way Native Americans were depicted on Walt Disney’s “Peter Pan” as a child, and felt an instant disconnection between how other people saw Native American people and how she saw herself.

As she grew up, that disconnect amplified in her mind, and she felt compelled to do whatever it took to make it right. “I’ve been doing activism for over 20 years now on Indian mascots. I had a lot of raw emotions about seeing it,” Dana said.

In high school, she started touring schools around Maine to talk to her peers about how Native American mascots were harmful, a fight she kept up until Gov. Janet Mills signed a law banning schools from using Native American mascots in 2019, making Maine the first state in the nation to sign such a law.

It was a monumental highlight for Dana, both professionally and personally. She even brought her two daughters to watch the signing of the bill in person, to show them that they’re capable of making lasting and meaningful change, too.

The victory wasn’t without struggle, especially in Skowhegan, where Dana focused much of her efforts on convincing the school to abandon its Native American mascot, despite enormous pushback from the community.

She remembers being booed out of school board meetings, and people yelling at her from their trucks as they drove by. She was threatened with rape and murder from those who opposed her.

It was in these moments of struggle that Dana grew into her own. “I was absolutely really changed by all of it.” When the school mascot ban was finally signed, it felt like the culmination of all her hard work.

“There’s things like that that just feels like everything has paid off and it’s worth it,” Dana said.

The ban was a big highlight in her career as the first-ever Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador. A political science graduate from the University of Maine, Dana had an aptitude for policy making.

For a while, she thought about becoming a lawyer but when she got pregnant with her first daughter at 22, two months before graduating from college, that changed.

In 2016, she was elected to serve on the tribal council. The same year, the tribe was preparing to appoint a tribal ambassador — a new position created to mend the relationship between the tribe and the state.

Dana was ready to take on the role. But tribal members didn’t feel the appointee should also serve on the council. So she resigned from her seat on the council and that night, the chief appointed her as the new tribal ambassador.

Dana has spent her time as tribal ambassador spearheading one social justice project after another. So far this year, she helped move forward a bill that will give the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes jurisdiction to prosecute some domestic violence crimes through an extension of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.

[Janet Mills reaches deal with tribes on domestic violence bill hanging over sovereignty talks]

Dana comes from a long line of tribal leaders in the Penobscot Nation. Both of her grandmothers worked for the tribe, with one serving as a tribal clerk and the other as the housing and urban development director.

Her great aunt Donna Loring now serves as the senior adviser on tribal affairs to Gov. Mills.

It was these women who mentored the young and ambitious activist and taught her to turn her pain into change.

“We’ve always had a really strong presence of women in our culture,” Dana said.

This is what gives her purpose to keep pushing each day; knowing that she’s doing important work that honors her ancestors who were trying to survive and fight for their own rights while under oppression.

“Thinking about everything that they went through, how much they sacrificed, how much they were silenced, and for whatever reason, people care what I have to say. I have a duty to do it honorably.”