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Maine endorses UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine;s General Assembly has passed a resolution supporting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, setting a precedent for other states to follow.

The Maine Senate and House of Representatives voted unanimously April 15 on a joint resolution in support of the declaration, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly Sept. 13, 2007, in a historic vote of 143 states in favor to 4 against, with 11 abstentions. The U.S. joined Canada, Australia and New Zealand as the only nations opposing the declaration. Significantly, all four countries have substantial indigenous populations that can claim large areas of land.

The joint resolution has six ''whereas'' clauses outlining the declaration's affirmation of the standards needed to protect indigenous peoples, including ''their rights that pertain to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues''; their rights to ''maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations''; and the need to abolish discrimination against indigenous people and instead promote ''their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them.''

The resolution also asserts the right of indigenous peoples ''to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.''

Ironically, on the same day the declaration resolution passed, Gov. John Baldacci vetoed a bill to allow the Penobscots to operate slot machines on Indian Island - their vision of economic development - and some lawmakers who had previously approved the bill with a veto-proof supermajority flip-flopped and upheld the governor's action, sending the slots proposal to its grave.

The resolution to endorse the declaration was submitted by Donna Loring, the Penobscot Indian Nation's tribal representative to the Legislature, and co-sponsored by Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy Tribe's legislative representative.

''It was Donald's idea originally. His idea was to bring it to Baldacci and have him bring forward a resolution,'' Loring said.

Soctomah did bring the request to the governor's office several weeks ago, but there was no response, Loring said. Finally, with less than a week left in the legislative session and no word from the governor, she decided to take the matter into her own hands and drew up the resolution, which was co-sponsored by around seven legislators in addition to Soctomah.

In her speech presenting the resolution to the Legislature, Loring noted that the ''white'' government of Australia has issued an apology to that land's indigenous peoples, but has not adopted the declaration. She told legislators that the Canadian Parliament recently endorsed the resolution by a vote of 148 - 113.

As for the U.S. vote against the declaration, Loring, a Vietnam War veteran, said, ''The U.S. has always stood for freedom and democracy. Many of us have fought and died for those rights. It is unconscionable that the U.S. voted against the rights of indigenous peoples.''

She talked about a 2002 trip to Chile with legislators from all over the U.S., where she witnessed government officials speaking paternalistically about the Mapuche and how the government provided them with what they needed while members of the tribe were ''standing there listening with their heads down.''

''Indigenous peoples all over the world are in need of their freedoms, including religious freedom and the right to be treated equally as human beings,'' Loring said.

She told the legislators that she comes from a line of indigenous people who have been treated badly by both the state of Maine and the federal government.

''I come from a people who have lost their lands and their rights and their religion to the majority culture. I come from a people who have fought and died to protect this country and I come from a people who are the very essence of this country.''

Loring said she has been asked frequently if she thinks being a tribal representative makes a difference in Maine, and she always answers with an emphatic ''yes.''

''We have played a role in making indigenous peoples of Maine real and visible and human. I truly believe the majority of Maine legislators recognize the value of human rights and the fact that indigenous peoples all over the world should have them and be treated with civility, equality and respect.''

The legislators applauded her speech in a house packed with elementary and high school students, a visitor from China on a 10-day work session, and a group of women from various countries from the International Women's Leadership Council.

''It was awesome,'' Loring told Indian Country Today.

She said she hopes the word will get out and that other states will also endorse the declaration.

''Maybe it will help the federal [government] take another look at the declaration. With all this attention right now on how badly China treats people - and the U.S. is going against indigenous rights? What kind of platform do we have to be critical of China?''

If enough states follow and endorse the declaration, it could build a critical mass that the federal government cannot ignore, Loring said.

''It's perhaps more like shaming the administration into supporting the declaration.''