Sam puts Wabanaki sovereignty in historical context

Sam Zager speech: Sam puts Wabanaki sovereignty in historical context

House floor remarks regarding centuries of unfair treatment of Indigenous people in Maine and the rest of the United States–and how Maine can take steps towards fairness. Sam supported an important bill to make modifications to the 1980 Indian Land Claims Settlement Implementing Act (LD 1626 sponsored by Asst Majority Leader Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross). 

Thank you Mr Speaker.

I rise in support of the pending motion regarding LD 1626 because it would take dramatic and historic steps to address unfairness built into the 1980 Implementing Act.   

On October 7, 2001 President George W. Bush ordered U.S. forces to attack Al-Qaeda. In his words, “to defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedoms of people everywhere.” I was at that time a naval intelligence officer on the other side of the planet deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. We were a couple hundred miles off the coast of Pakistan, the closest US strike force to Afghanistan. Our ship was the flagship of a 50-ship multinational battle force, the largest assembled since World War II. And we were able to start a war in the name of freedom.

Throughout American history, Mainers have left behind loved ones to fight for freedom and sovereignty — on these lands and overseas. And yet, this state has refrained from recognizing the sovereignty of the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Maliseets–instead treating them in a manner unlike any other American tribe. Sovereignty is a the heart of LD 1626.

I am so proud to be an American and a Mainer. But pride ought not blind us to the ways that this state and nation have sometimes been less-than-forthright with the first nations known to occupy our beloved woodlands, mountains, rivers, and coast.

As the representative from Friendship mentioned, there were many treaties between the Wabanaki tribes and the colony and then Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1678, 1703 (Treaties of Casco), 1794, and 1818. Strangely, Maine Statute currently requires that promulgated copies of our state Constitution hide the language about honoring those treaties

The U.S. government went even further than hiding language. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz pointed out that the Supreme Court in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903) found that the US Congress had plenary power to “dispose of Indian lands and resources regardless of the terms of previous treaty provisions.” Legislation followed, and by the 1920s, “nearly all prime grazing lands came to be occupied by non-Indian ranchers.” 

A very similar thing happened with Maine’s natural resource, our timber, and for control of land for military purposes. In 1833, the State of Maine dispatched a wealthy lumber “CEO” Amos Roberts and Judge Thomas Bartlett to purchase Penobscot lands. After the transaction, the tribe in June 1833 formally protested to the state that the sale was “obtained by fraud and deception” for below-market value. An earlier Maine Legislature considered shedding light on this shadowy chapter, but by a margin of a single vote, chose not to even print the Penobscot tribe’s protest document. Thus, it was never really resolved, but the result was that yet another section of territory was lost by the tribes under dubious circumstances.

Much more needs to happen to improve health, educational, housing, and other opportunities for American tribes at the federal level, but a lot has improved between the federal government and American Indian tribes.

Unfortunately, for a long time, Maine has held the Wabanaki back. It has held pervasive and peculiar authority over the tribes, keeping out of tribal hands federal funds that go to every other recognized tribe in the United States; it also has kept the tribes from exercising judicial, tax, and hunting and fishing rights.  

I also remind the House that the 1980 Settlement was intended to evolve.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus wrote to The Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, Aug 19, 1980, “Our proposed amendment to the bill would give Congress’ consent to future jurisdictional agreements between the State and the Tribes. Thus, there is flexibility built into this relationship.” Today we have an opportunity to exercise that flexibility. 

There is definitely precedent for giving back to the tribes some of which was wrongly taken, as President Richard Nixon did in 1970. In giving back to the Pueblo Indians, President Nixon said, “This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done.” It had been passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress.  

During my travels, I have personally seen how governments in Canada and Australia have started to reconcile their past treatment of the First Nations and Aboriginal people. Putting the People of the Dawn Land, Maine’s Wabanaki, on par with other Indigenous people in this country would be an important step along a similarly honorable road.  

Now is our moment!

In closing, please permit me to recall for the record something which I shared with the Judiciary Committee during the hearings on this bill. They are excerpted words from the Passamaquoddy tribal representative during a speech in this chamber in the 63rd Maine Legislature 135 years ago:

“In the struggle between Great Britain and America, your people came to us for assistance. You authorized Col. John Allan to speak to us, and you said…believe what he says to you. After many kind words and promises Francis Joseph, who was the Chief of the tribe at that time, accepted his offer…In a few days Francis Joseph gathered an army of six hundred men….The Passamaquoddy Indians faithfully fought for the American people to help them gain their independence…Sopiel Socktoma, with fifty others of his tribe, captured an armed schooner in Passamaquoddy Bay, and they ran her to Machias and gave her up to Col. John Allan…You promised us you would see to our just claims in the future…The Indians who served in that war are passed out of existence, but the Passamaquoddy tribe…is still in existence…How many of their privileges have been broken; how many of their lands have been taken from them by authority of the State…Now look at this yourselves and see whether I am right or wrong…I don’t mean to insult anybody, but simply to tell you of our wrongs.”

Louis Mitchell, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative spoke those words on the 9th of March, 1887. Although he himself has since passed out of existence, his great-great-granddaughter is a member of this 130th Legislature, and co-sponsor of this legislation. Representative Rena Newell can bear witness to our State answering her ancestor’s call to honor.

Thank you Mr Speaker.

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