Universal Notebook: Ignorance of the Indigenous is no excuse

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When I was growing up we called the native and natural people of Maine “Indians” because Christopher Columbus didn’t know where he was back in 1492.

Of course, even 500 years later we are still as ignorant as Columbus. All I knew of Indians as a boy were the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto, Longfellow’s Hiawatha and the fact that the city where I grew up was named for Col. Thomas Westbrook, who led the English in battling the French and Indians. The only Wabanaki person I knew was a handyman called Chief who mowed the lawn across the street and lived summers in a little shack in the woods across the railroad tracks.

Edgar Allen BeemWhen we did run across historical references to Maine Indians it was usually as enemies of the white settlers, the attackers in the Battle of Deering Oaks in 1689 and the 1702 massacre of white farmers at what is still known as Massacre Pond in Scarborough.

Since 2001, however, Maine law has required that our children be taught Native American history as part of Maine history units. I wonder how many schools actually comply.

As America begins to come to terms with how the dominant white culture exploited African Americans and nearly obliterated Native Americans, arts, education and religious institutions and the tribes themselves are leading the way toward justice and inclusion.

The debate over the ethics of a proposed mural in Brunswick (“The moral mural dispute in Brunswick,” Portland Phoenix, Jan. 4) and the prominent role granted Wabanaki heritage in the design of the new Portland Museum of Art addition (Portland Phoenix, Nov. 30 and Jan. 6) are recent examples of the attempt to do justice by Indigenous people.

But Maine has a major bit of unfinished business when it comes to treating local tribes fairly and equitably — granting the Wabanakis the same sovereignty that every other tribe in America enjoys.

The Maine Indian Land Claims Act of 1980 screwed the Wabanaki people in a major way. State and federal officials talked the Wabanaki into signing away their tribal sovereignty in return for $81 million with which to buy back some of the land that had been stolen from them. As a result, the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac cannot benefit from any federal laws that benefit all other tribes. It is estimated that exclusion from federal grant programs costs the Wabanaki close to $2 million a year.

The Maine Indian Land Claims Act effectively reduced the Wabanaki Nation to the status of a municipality subordinate to the state.

You will hear those who don’t want to do right by the Wabanaki say things like “a deal is a deal” — but not when it’s a dirty deal like the Maine Indian Land Claims Act of 1980.

The Maine legislature made a bipartisan effort to correct the land claims injustice last year, but Gov. Mills threatened a veto. Mills has also opposed Rep. Jared Golden’s HR 6707, The Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act. Golden’s bill passed the House and is now before the Senate, where Sen. King — who should know better — makes a lame argument that all parties to the 1980 land claims act must be parties to any changes to it.

Bull! No one elected official should be allowed to stand in the way of tribal sovereignty.

When it comes to discrimination against the native and natural people of Maine, most of us are still ignorant of all the ways the Wabanaki have been cheated. We need to smarten up and finally do right by the people whose lands we inhabit.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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