Book documents Maine tribes' ongoing struggle for equality
AUGUSTA, Maine - If there is one abiding message in Donna Loring's book ''In the Shadow of the Eagle: A Tribal Representative in Maine,'' it is this: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
''In the Shadow of the Eagle'' was published in mid-April by Tilbury House Publishers, and includes two years' worth of Loring's thoughts, observations, conversations and struggles to become a voice for Maine's indigenous people as the Penobscot Indian Nation's tribal representative to the state Legislature. The book comprises Loring's journal entries from January 2000 through August 2002, and includes numerous photos and several speeches by Loring and her colleague, Passamaquoddy representative Donald Soctomah.
The book's final chapter, called ''The Struggle Continues,'' forwards the story to the end of 2007.
Maine is the only state in the country with tribal representatives seated in the state House of Representatives, a practice that began after Maine was formed as a separate entity from Massachusetts in 1820, but likely goes back to the Revolutionary War era when the Wabanaki tribes responded to George Washington's call to fight on the part of the colonies against England.
Only the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes have legislative representatives; the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians do not.
The tribal representatives are more than symbolic, but less than fully empowered legislators. They serve on committees and may chair study committees. They can sponsor legislation and resolutions, but they cannot submit amendments and they cannot vote either in committee or on the House floor.
In her introduction, Loring promises that the book will provide ''a flavor of the day-to-day aspects of what it's like to be a Native American trying to influence policy on a state level, trying to be heard, trying to be visible within the halls of the most powerful and influential body in the state.''
In a classic description of being ''hidden in plain view,'' Loring writes: ''The two Indian representatives are treated cordially but when most bills are being discussed, they are discussed and decided upon in little groups and in small corners of the Statehouse. Indian representatives are not usually included in these discussions and are for the most part invisible. It has been particularly difficult to influence any policy without a vote and without the same legislative standing that everyone else enjoys.''
Loring grew up on Indian Island and received a B.A. in political science from the University of Maine - Orono. She is a Vietnam veteran who served in the communications center at Long Binh Army Base. A graduate of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, she became a police chief in Maine and served in that position for the Penobscot Indian Nation from 1984 - 90. She was aide de camp to former Gov. Angus King and commissioned with the rank of colonel by him, according to her biography on Tilbury's Web site.
During the two years covered in Loring's book, the tribal representatives managed to sponsor and pass two crucial pieces of legislation: a bill banning the offensive word ''squaw'' from public places and a bill mandating the teaching of the history of Maine's tribes in schools.
The Offensive Names bill garnered national media attention, including an interview Loring had with ABC's John Stossel and Barbara Walters, who casually and unselfconsciously expressed the anti-Indian racism endemic to America.
''Now I'm not sure what to call them - Native Americans or what? They don't even celebrate Columbus Day!'' Walters complained on national television.
Loring recounts the tribal representatives' hard-fought efforts - all of which were either defeated in the Legislature or blocked by the governor - to pass legislation allowing them to vote in committee, to put land to Indian territory status, to establish a tribal casino, to assert jurisdiction over their traditional waterways, and more.
She details the tribes' court battles with the state's powerful paper companies over jurisdiction to regulate water quality on the tribe's traditional rivers into which the paper companies routinely dump toxic chemicals. The case led at one point to a court battle over the paper companies' attempts to access tribal documents under the state's ''sunshine'' laws - an effort the state supported, and the tribes lost.
''Judge [Robert] Crowley had no regard whatsoever for the positions of our tribal chiefs or for the tribal governments they represented. He overstepped his jurisdiction by hearing the case in the first place and then in an unbelievable decision, he overstepped his judicial authority by ordering them to jail for contempt!'' Loring writes.
At the core of all the battles, she writes, is the issue of tribal sovereignty and the way the state and courts have wrongly interpreted the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Land Settlement Act to strip the tribes of their inherent sovereignty and impose state jurisdiction over them.
''Today, almost 10 years later, Maine tribal governments are facing the same issues. We struggle to gain economic sustainability and social equality. Today I am faced with the same opposition I was faced with almost a decade ago. I could literally take the same speeches I wrote back then and not change a word,'' Loring writes in the final chapter.
Loring says education is needed to understand the indigenous peoples who lived here long before Europeans took over their land, to know their history and recognize the importance of their cultures.
''We need to face the fact that this country was built on the bodies of Indian people - indeed there was a holocaust on these shores. Once we know our country's history, we can work to improve policy and practice. Then and only then will we be capable of empathy with other countries and cultures.''