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Penobscot journalist Rhonda Frey dies

INDIAN ISLAND, Penobscot Indian Nation – Rhonda Mitchell Frey, a Penobscot activist and the sole American Indian journalist working in Maine, died Feb. 8, leaving the community saddened and shocked at her sudden unexpected passing.

Frey was born Dec. 30, 1955, the daughter of the late Matthew and Juanita (Nicholas) Mitchell of Indian Island.

She graduated from the University of Maine, Orono, where she received bachelor degrees in journalism and history. She worked as a producer for Channel 5’s 11 o’clock News at WABI-TV in Bangor. During the 1970s, she served as a police officer for Penobscot Nation. For the past several years she was the human resources coordinator for Penobscot Nation, Indian Island.

Frey was a member of the University of Maine Oratorical Society and St. Ann’s Catholic Church Voices of the Dawn Choir on Indian Island.

She served as consultant to the Abbe Museum, assisted in curriculum development for the Maine Native American History program’s secondary educational unit, and was an advocate for child protective services.

Frey’s great love was for journalism and she was the only Native journalist working exclusively in Maine. She was a member of the Native American Journalists Association, and the creator, producer and host of Indigenous Voices, a bi-monthly radio broadcast for WERU radio, in Orland, Maine, with simulcast on Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges and Maine Public Broadcasting Network radio stations.

According to Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis, Frey was a tireless and dedicated fighter for Native rights.

“Rhonda’s death was shocking to us all here,” Francis said. “Rhonda was a lifelong contributor in our community. I think her greatest contribution to our people was her insistence that we have a voice.”

He said she was instrumental in getting the state to pass an Offensive Names Act banning the word “squaw” from public landmarks and in making sure towns complied with the law.

“The lesson I will take from Rhonda and always remember her for was that our day-to-day jobs, while important were not our only task, but also caring about our people and being there for them in crisis, which she always was through being active in the church or just spending time with families that needed someone. This was important to Rhonda. I’ll remember her for having a tremendous heart and how much she cared for people and stuck up for her tribe,” Francis said.

Frey was “a joy to be around,” said her lifelong friend Teresa Sappier.

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“Rhonda was a sweet and determined child and a vibrant young woman. As a child she was so impressed with my mother’s voice and asked my mother to teach her a particular song. Her greatest attributes were determination, persistence and the desire to learn.”

Sappier said each of these characteristics were exemplified as Frey developed her radio program.

“I am certain many people, Maine Indians included, learned a great deal from her programs. Rhonda had such a lovely, sweet voice and she will be greatly missed.”

She said Frey was a role model for many Penobscot and Passamaquoddy women.

“I will miss her bubbly personality. Rhonda and I, though we did not see much of each other, were lifelong friends. When our lives would finally touch each other on my infrequent visits to Maine, it was as if we had never been apart.”

Former Penobscot Chief James Sappier, Teresa’s brother, said he was working with Frey just days before she passed.

“We were working to set up an interview with President Chavez of Venezuela regarding indigenous peoples. This would have been a radio conference from Venezuela via WERU-FM in East Orland and WMHB-FM in Waterville, which I firmly believe National Public Radio would have carried throughout the nation,” he said.

“Our tribal community was stunned as the news of her death spread like wildfire through the community. She was involved in so many activities – our St. Ann’s Church, tribal government and public relations.”

He said the Penobscot Nation was always Frey’s highest priority.

“Yes, we most certainly will miss her. She really is an unsung hero as she led Indigenous Voices in Maine. This was the only media outlet the tribes of Maine had, it will be very difficult to find a dedicated person as she was. May GheChe’Nawais take care of her, her family, and all our relations, forever.”

She is survived by a son, James H. Lolar and his wife, Sarah, of Gardiner; two grandchildren, Rowyn and Avery Lolar; 10 siblings: Valerie (Mitchell) Carter and her husband, Cliff, Burnell Mitchell and his wife, Pauline, Mark Mitchell and his wife, Kathy, Lisa (Mitchell) Shirland and her husband, Robert, Seth Mitchell and his wife, Sherri, Sara (Mitchell) Knapp and her husband, Ben, all of Indian Island, Dale Mitchell of Orono, Melissa Mitchell and her partner, Robert Leavitt, of Dexter, Nicole (Mitchell) Sockbeson and her husband, Andy, of Indian Island, Patty Mitchell and her partner, Dana Newell, of Indian Township; aunts Blanche Sockabasin and Patricia Sockabasin, both of Indian Township, Ursula Newell of Pleasant Point and Hilda Gray of Indian Island; uncles, Gerry Mitchell of Alabama, Moses Neptune and Andrew Dana, both of Pleasant Point; 30 nieces and nephews, eight great-nieces and great-nephews, many cousins and close friends across the country. She was predeceased by her parents, Matthew and Nikki Mitchell; a brother, Matthew Mitchell Jr.; a grandson, Aiden Lolar; a niece, Stephanie Mitchell; and a nephew, Jacob Mitchell.

Memorial contributions may be made to the American Heart Association-Go Red for Women of Penobscot County, 51 U.S. Route 1, Suite M, Scarborough, ME 04074.