AUGUSTA, Maine – For the first time in almost 200 years, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribal representatives will be officially recognized in the state legislature.
The Maine House of Representatives passed legislation Jan. 21 to add the tribal representatives’ names to the official roll call board. That means the tribal representatives’ attendance at legislative sessions will be noted and entered into the legislative record.
Passamaquoddy Rep. Donald Soctomah and Penobscot Indian Nation Rep. Wayne Mitchell are the current elected representatives of the tribes.
“This is a proud moment for me, but especially for the Passamaquoddy Tribe,” Soctomah said. “To be recognized in this manner is a step in the right direction.
Both representatives drew a parallel between the inauguration of President Barack Obama a day earlier and the action in the state legislature.
“Our first African-American president will be a reminder to countless children in America that their potential is endless. I am very proud that when tribal children visit the State House and see the name of a tribal member on the board, they will know that they have the potential to do big things as well,” Soctomah said.
Mitchell said it was a “hallmark day” for the state.
“We have had an historic couple of days,” he said. “To have inaugurated Barack Obama on Tuesday and to follow it up with this gesture the next day is remarkable. Today, I am reminded of my ancestors – my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my uncle – who were all tribal representatives. They were forced to stand in the hallways of the State House. I am deeply appreciative to the members of the House of Representatives for this recognition.”
Maine is the only state in the U.S. that has 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 Wabanaki tribes responded to George Washington’s call to fight on the part of the colonies against England.
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.
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 new policy was brought forward by Rep. Peggy Pendleton (D- Scarborough) after reading a memoir, “In the Shadow of the Eagle,” by former Penobscot Tribe Representative Donna Loring. She was replaced by Mitchell in an election last fall after serving 12 years as the tribal representative.
Loring’s book was published last spring 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. It documents the continuing struggle of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes to gain a voice and visibility in the dominant culture.
“For too long we allowed our tribal representatives to remain invisible among us,” Pendleton said. “Having their name on the tote board with all of the other members is a visual reminder that they are here and we need to work with them.”
Loring said she was delighted.
“Peggy called me a few months ago and told me she was going to do this. I am so happy that my book has made a difference and caused a legislator to actually take action. Peggy feels that every legislator should read my book. I, of course, agree and think every legislator should read my book whether they are from Maine or another state. States need to take a good look at the policies that affect Native people in their states. Perhaps a legislator from another state would take action in the name of fairness and equality.”
Asked if she wished the legislature had agreed to post tribal representatives’ names sooner, Loring said, “Yes. The value is that we are counted as real people, because we are seen as a valued member of the legislature, our opinions are valued. We are counted and we have a voice, although not a vote.”
That’s something to aspire to, Loring said, also referring to Obama’s inauguration.
“The vote was taken to put our names on the board the day after President Obama was sworn in as the first black president of this country. He, as a black man, had risen to the very top. On the other hand, Indian representatives were lucky just to get their names on a roll call board to let people know we exist.
“This country has a long way to go in treating Native people as equals and in giving us a voice and a vote. Tribal governments have been disenfranchised by this country; we have no vote in state governments or in Congress. There needs to be a way to allow tribal governments to have a vote when legislation directly affects them. Perhaps President Obama can take a look at this situation and take some steps to rectify it. There is always hope.”