Maine’s Native American tribes are treated differently from the vast majority of tribes in other parts of the country. The federal government recognizes the inherent sovereignty of those tribes, meaning they are treated as a separate nation rather than as a state or municipality. Sovereign tribes can establish their own form of government, determine membership requirements, and play a substantial role in law enforcement and court systems.
Maine’s Wabanaki tribes—the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Houlton Band of Maliseet, and Aroostook Band of Micmacs—as well as the Abenaki and other tribal communities living in diaspora outside of Maine, do not have sovereignty. A law passed in 1980 created what is essentially a state/municipality relationship between Maine and the tribes, subjecting the tribes to Maine state laws. Maine’s tribes have sought sovereignty on par with most federal tribes for years, and now the effort is closer than ever to becoming a reality.
Maine Audubon supports tribal sovereignty in Maine. We stand with Wabanaki and other indigenous people in supporting their communities, their culture, and their right to self-determination. We stand with dozens of our peer conservation advocacy organizations in submitting testimony in support of this legislation, LD 585. And we stand with hundreds of other organizations and businesses striving to be more inclusive, equitable, and just in our work and our lives.
Sovereignty for the Wabanaki has direct implications for our relationships, work, and mission.
As a landowner, Maine Audubon must acknowledge that the land of this state was stolen from the tribes, and whole systems were created to perpetuate ongoing theft, persecution, and oppression throughout every generation and landscape here since. While white settlers worked to systematically eradicate Wabanaki people, communities, and culture, the land throughout what is now Maine has also been abused under white ownership and “stewardship.” Maine Audubon can claim positive land use practices that align with indigenous principles of reciprocity on our land and the land management that we influence, but the Wabanaki have been the best stewards that the lands have ever known. Maine Audubon supports Wabanaki sovereignty as a step toward acknowledgement and reparation of the occupation and seizure of Wabanaki ancestral homelands.
As a leader in conservation and environmental education, Maine Audubon points to Wabanaki culture as the ultimate example of natural resource stewardship, sustainability, and governance. Just as we rely on Western science, technology, and white education and leadership institutions to advance our mission, we also rely on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and ways of knowing. Concepts such as phenology, conserving resources for seven generations ahead, being water protectors, and silviculture that were central to indigenous culture are still the sources of most of today’s environmental restoration solutions. For decades, we have worked alongside Wabanaki leaders and communities restoring fish passage on the Penobscot River, observing signs of climate change, testifying on behalf of conservation values in the legislature, hosting Wabanaki experts for lectures, and developing new school curricula that blends STEM and traditional ecological knowledge. Maine Audubon supports Wabanaki sovereignty as a way of further enabling, empowering, and entrusting these traditions and values so ingrained in our mission and work.