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Wabanaki veterans honored with Native American Veterans Day

AUGUSTA, Maine – Veterans who are tribal members of the Wabanaki Confederacy will be recognized each year on a newly designated Native American Veterans Day.

The State of Maine has officially designated June 21 as Native American Veterans Day.

An act to establish Native American Veterans Day was introduced earlier this year by Passamaquoddy Representative Donald Soctomah.

“Whereas, throughout the history of our nation, Native Americans served our country to defend rights that they themselves were not always afforded; and Whereas, the recognition afforded by this Act should be bestowed upon them without further delay,” the bill says.

Gov. John Baldacci signed the bill April 30. The bill aimed at recognizing the courage and service of members of the Wabanaki tribes – Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac – and requires the governor to issue an annual proclamation urging people of the state “to observe this day in a suitable place and with appropriate ceremony and activity.”

“Our troops, past and present, represent the best of Maine and our nation,” Baldacci said. “For our Native American members, whether it be through service in the National Guard, Armed Forces or Reserves, it is vital that they know that everyone in Maine appreciates their service and sacrifices.”

Soctomah attended the ceremonial signing and said it was a great day.

“When you think about the service that Native Americans did for this country when they couldn’t even vote, it tells me that they were protecting the homeland just as the ancestors would have. I introduced the legislation because it was the right thing to do. We need to recognize people for their service, especially Native veterans. Sometimes it takes a piece of legislation to make all people think about our past, present and future directions.”

Also in attendance were several co-sponsors and supporters, including representatives from the Sons of the American Revolution and Charles Norman Shay, the inspiration for the bill.

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As a 19-year-old serving with the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, Shay’s unit was among the first to make the difficult landing on Omaha Beach in 1944. He earned a Silver Star for his unselfish heroism that day.

Shay was captured by Nazis in 1945, and survived German POW camps. He returned to action in the Korean War where he served as a combat medic and master sergeant with the 3rd Medical Platoon, 7th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division; he distinguished himself by courageous rescue of wounded comrades under heavy enemy fire, earning a Bronze Star with Two Oak Leaf Clusters for Valor.

During his first official visit to the United States in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy awarded Shay an honorary knighthood in the Legion d’Honneur, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.

“As one of the last surviving Native American combat veterans on our reservation who served in World War II, I was grateful for the opportunity to witness Governor John Baldacci sign LD 30 formally establishing Native American Veterans Day in the State of Maine,” Shay said.

Now almost 85 years old, Shay is a Penobscot Indian Nation tribal elder.

“Together with our brothers and sisters of the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq we are allied nations in the Wabanaki Confederacy. Since the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, our people have stood shoulder to shoulder with Americans and Canadians in many wars, fighting a common enemy,” Shay wrote.

During WWII members of the Wabanaki Confederacy were required to register for the draft under penalty of the law if they failed to do so, Shay said.

“We had no voting rights. It was not until 1954 that we were able to vote in federal elections and not until 1967 were we able to vote in state and local elections. We were second class citizens in our own country. However, we served this country faithfully, but in effect we were fighting to protect our own land. I therefore find it very appropriate that the Maine State Legislature passed the bill LD 30 establishing June 21 as Native American Veterans Day in the State of Maine. When Governor Baldacci signed LD 30, Maine became the first state in the union to honor its Native American Veterans with such high distinction.”

Soctomah said that listening to Shay talk about other Native soldiers during WWII got him thinking about how important Native history is to this country then and now.

“One veteran talked about the letter General George Washington wrote to the Maine tribes asking for help in defending the soon to be United States. I thought about my great grandfather Sopiel Selmore who was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, I thought about Moses Neptune who was one of the last men killed in World War I at the sounding of the victory bell in France. Native Veterans Day will help us remember our soldiers, both men and women; this is part of our history when we remember this.”