Opinion: Young climate activists call on governor to honor Wabanaki’s sovereignty

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Maine Youth for Climate Justice (MYCJ) stands in solidarity with the Wabanaki Tribes in support of LD 1626 “An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act”. We are a coalition of 400 youth across the state fighting for bold climate action and a just transition to a livable future in Maine. Supporting tribal sovereignty is integral to our work to center and elevate the voices of people who have historically been excluded from narratives around environmental activism and climate change.

At the heart of MYCJ’s work is climate justice; we recognize that the climate crisis is caused by systemic failures and forms of oppression and that it has a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Colonialism causes climate change, so in addressing the climate crisis, we must simultaneously address colonial structures and the environmental injustices they have caused.

The place now called Maine is the homeland of the Wabanaki people and they have ruled this land since time immemorial. However, when it comes to decisions that impact their lands, waters and livelihoods, the Wabanaki community has been denied an equal seat at the table and has often been completely excluded from decision-making processes.

The state of Maine has continually prevented the Wabanaki tribes from exercising their sovereign right to regulate their lands and waters, resulting in many forms of environmental injustice, including a lack of potable water on the Passamaquoddy Reservation in Sipayik (Pleasant Point). Additionally, paper mills, chemical companies, and the Juniper Ridge landfill all pollute the Penobscot River, which has prevented the Penobscot Nation from exercising their subsistence fishing rights. Restoring tribal sovereignty and self-determination over land use and natural resources is an essential step to begin to address these wrongs that have been perpetuated for generations against the Wabanaki tribes.

Along with these environmental injustices, the Wabanaki tribes face a difficult and impending climatic reality. They are on the front lines of the climate crisis, as climate change disproportionately affects Indigenous peoples, people of color and low-income communities. For example, increasingly erratic floods and warming waters are already fundamentally altering the waterways on which the Abenaki community has always relied for food and travel. Additionally, the emerald ash borer, an invasive species of beetle whose population has increased with global warming, threatens the growth of ash trees that are used in Wabanaki basketry and other culturally significant practices. In the face of the challenges of the climate crisis, it is absolutely essential that the Wabanaki people and all indigenous peoples have full sovereignty, access to resources, discretion and decision-making power to adapt and deal with these impending changes. .

LD 1626 would restore the sovereign rights of tribes to regulate hunting, fishing, natural resources, and land use on Maine tribal lands. The state has denied these rights to the Wabanaki people since the passage of the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement and Implementation Act in 1980.

Under the binding terms of this law, the State of Maine treats the tribes as municipalities rather than sovereign nations and acts as an intermediary between them and the federal government. Maine is the only state in the United States to subject the federally recognized tribes within its borders to this form of paternalism, hampering the nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government that the other 570 federally recognized tribes federal have.

Public pressure for tribal sovereignty is at its peak. Thousands of Mainers from all walks of life and dozens of organizations across the state have submitted testimonials in support of LD 1626. This legislation has now passed the Maine House and Maine Senate with impassioned testimonies to the support of legislators. LD 1626 is the result of years of work and it is high time that the implementing law was amended and tribal sovereignty was restored. Lawmakers have heard their constituents, and this bill will soon make its way to the governor’s office.

We call on Governor Janet Mills to reconsider her continued opposition to this measure and to stand in solidarity with the tribes. The governor must recognize, restore and respect the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki tribes. If Governor Mills fails to do so, we ask our lawmakers to appeal to morality to override Mills’ veto and recognize and restore the sovereignty of the tribes of Maine. No more compromise, no more waiting. Sovereignty is not negotiated.

It is a matter of fairness, fairness and justice. As a coalition of young people fighting for climate justice, we must advocate for a future where the inherent rights of the Wabanaki tribes are respected. We stand in solidarity with the Wabanaki Tribes and urge Governor Mills to support LD 1626.

MYCJ members Andrew Blunt, Cassie Cain, Becca Ferguson, Audrey Hufnagel, and Ezra Sassaman contributed to this piece.

Photo: Audrey Hufnagel and Elise Hartill of MYCJ at the State House | Tag

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