Maine Voices: People of faith urge legislators, Gov. Mills to support tribal sovereignty

L.D. 1626 is a necessary part of seeking reconciliation with the people of the Dawnland.


The Mi’kmaq word “upisktwo,” often translated as “forgiveness,” actually means “let us return to that original place and try again.” There are many reasons church people need to seek upisktwo with our Wabanaki siblings, the people of the Dawnland, who have lived here and stewarded the land for more than 12,000 years.

Nine hundred years ago, Pope Alexander VI issued the Doctrine of Discovery, claiming that Christianity was superior to all other faiths, and giving Christian explorers and colonists permission to dominate the lands and peoples they allegedly “discovered.” The doctrine was not just religious but also had profound economic and political implications and was used to justify theft, torture, slavery, murder and genocide.


Evelyn Johnson Moore and John Hennessy are co-chairs of the Public Policy Committee of the Maine Council of Churches, which has seven member denominations and two associate member churches representing 439 congregations with more than 55,000 parishioners across the state.

In the 1700s, a Portland minister organized his parishioners into “hunting squads” and sent them out to kill Abenaki Indians and return with their scalps for bounty – bounty money he then used to finance his church.

More recently, churches played a central role in operating the notorious boarding schools for Native children. Torn from their families, customs, language and religion, children were forced, often by abusive clergy, nuns and missionaries, to assimilate into white European culture and convert to Christianity. Even after the schools closed, churches continued to perpetuate trauma, supporting the removal of Native children from their families for placement in foster care and adoption with non-Native families.

How do we, as Maine’s churches, repent and amend our ways? How do we seek upisktwo with the Wabanaki tribes?

For decades, many in Maine’s faith communities have been working to do just that – most notably the Quaker Friends Committee on Maine Public Policy and the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations, along with the Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy Network and the Maine Council of Churches.

But these groups all agree recognition of tribal sovereignty must be the foundation of turning and trying again, of seeking reconciliation and restoring right relationship, of becoming what the prophet Isaiah called “repairers of the breach.” So these communities of faith have joined a broad-based coalition to ensure that L.D. 1626 is passed by Maine’s Legislature and becomes law.

“Tribes in Maine suffer from disadvantages not found in any other state. The current situation imposed by the state of Maine on Wabanaki peoples is morally and ethically wrong,” Shirley Hager of the Friends (Quaker) Committee on Maine Public Policy testified before the Judiciary Committee. “A United Nations investigation described (these) inequities as … human rights violations. Tribal communities only want what tribes in other states enjoy – greater freedom to control their own destiny and to thrive. We have in L.D. 1626 the means to make this possible.”

“We are called by our Creator to deepen our relationship with the Wabanaki of Maine, to stand with the tribes in the pursuit of justice, to affirm their inherent sovereignty and to support the preservation of Native languages and culture,” the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations declares in its mission statement.

“This bill is not an instance of our state granting rights but rather restoring rights long due to the tribes,” Barbara Brown of the Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy Network told the Judiciary Committee.

“It is time that the State of Maine finally acknowledge the sovereignty of the tribal nations here … . It is the necessary first step toward promoting harmony, reconciliation and mutual understanding … . It is a step that is long overdue,” the Rev. Jane Field of the Maine Council of Churches testified.

We urge people of faith and goodwill to join our efforts by contacting legislators and Gov. Mills and asking them to support L.D. 1626. Write letters to the editor, post on social media platforms (see the Wabanaki Alliance website for suggestions) and talk to your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, clergy and fellow church members.

Let us take the long-overdue step of recognizing Wabanaki tribal sovereignty. Let us return to that original place and try again.