BAR HARBOR — Recent actions by the State of Maine to recognize Indigenous People’s Day and ban Native American mascots are important, Penobscot activist and teacher Sherri Mitchell told a capacity crowd at the Abbe Museum Monday, but those declarations must be followed by other, substantive change.
“Even though we have this incredible symbolic change,” she said, “we have a lot of work left to do. Acknowledgement that I am a human being is not sufficient.”
She cited the court battle between the Penobscot Nation and the state government over jurisdiction and rights to the waters of the Penobscot River, and a bill extending protections of the federal Violence Against Women Act to two Maine tribes, passed by the Legislature in June but not yet signed by Governor Janet Mills.
In April, the U.S. House passed a reauthorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act that included amendments from Maine’s Rep. Chellie Pingree that would extend its authority to Maine tribes, but the bill was not taken up by the Senate.
An advisor to Mills told the Portland Press Herald at the time that the governor “looks forward to working with the Maine Legislature to further implement VAWA and fully protect members of our tribal communities.”
A bill in the Maine Legislature, L.D. 766, would allow non-members of the tribes to be tried in tribal courts in cases of domestic violence, stalking and trafficking on the reservations. It was intended as a backstop in case the federal law was not reauthorized. It was passed by both the Maine House and Senate in June, but remains on a list of unsigned bills.
In a statement from her office about that list, Mills said she is obligated to “thoroughly review all of them, evaluate their implications, and decide whether they are in the best interest of Maine people” and that she “look(s) forward to acting on them at the beginning of the next legislative session.”
More broadly, Mitchell told the group at the Abbe, serious environmental problems urgently require collective action. Otherwise, our life on this planet is in jeopardy.
“If my family doesn’t like your family, that’s secondary,” she said. “We can deal with that later. If we survive.”
Mitchell stressed that taking action and taking responsibility for making change, rather than waiting for someone else to do it, is important both because the work needs to be done and for mental and spiritual health.
“We have these mental illnesses called dependency and entitlement,” she said. “It’s time for us, the children of this land, to … begin acting like grownups who are responsible not only for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren.”
Everyone will need to examine their ways of thinking, according to Mitchell. “Recognize the preconditioning that has made you believe that you are part of the settler set, or colonizing set, and that there’s nobility and honor in that.” Part of the reason for increased incidence of anxiety and depression in white, well-off communities is that “colonization shifts around and begins cannibalizing itself — the colonizing set is now realizing that their survival is no longer a certainty.”
“We’ve arrived here together,” she stressed, native and non-native, and will need to work together to preserve and protect and preserve sources of food, water and energy.
“I have a tiny granddaughter,” she said, and every time she looks into the child’s eyes, “I think, now I know what I was really born for … I have a limited amount of time to ensure that my grandchildren have a place to live.”