June 06, 2020

Shameful legacy

I write to respond to Dr. Paul Romanelli’s comment during a public hearing at the Dec. 11 Houlton Town Council regarding $65,000 for the legal services needed for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians’ litigation. Referring to the band’s efforts to establish a community on tribal lands, Dr. Romanelli, chairman of the council, said, “I thought we all wanted to be one. … I don’t want to go off and form an Italian Republic of Northern Maine. ….” That remark shows an appalling ignorance of the situation of the Houlton Band of Maliseets and indeed of all American Indian tribes in this country.

The band didn’t break away from society and try to become a separate entity. They are inherently an independent and sovereign tribe existing in this area thousands of years before the incorporation of Houlton. Perhaps Italians, French, English, Irish, Swedes, Poles and other ethnic peoples immigrated to this country to become part of America’s melting pot – not so, American Indian tribes, this land’s First Nations. They have been fighting to maintain their cultures, communities and sovereign status since European colonists first set foot on this land.

Unlike other ethnic peoples, Native Americans have no homeland to return to where they can learn about their cultural heritage. American Indian tribes are the last bastions of the unique languages, history, traditions, stories, practices and spiritual beliefs that make up their cultures.

The United States has been trying to obliterate these cultures for centuries so we can all “be one” – by genocide, by stealing their land, by forcibly relocating and incarcerating them on reservations in areas too barren to sustain tribal communities in anything but the most abject poverty, by putting their children in boarding schools away from their families and communities, and in some cases by literally stealing their children away and giving them to non-Indian families. We are inheritors of this shameful legacy.

Even today, tribes constantly have to defend their treaty rights and sovereignty from assaults by Congress, states and the courts. These rights are essential if tribes are to continue to protect the cultures they have sustained despite centuries of oppression.

By refusing to enter into a cooperative agreement with the Maliseet Housing Authority to provide services such as police, ambulance and fire protection to new housing on tribal lands, the town of Houlton adds to this legacy of oppression by obstructing the band’s own efforts at establishing a community where they can speak their language, tell their stories, observe their tribal traditions, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs and teach them to their children; a community where they can sustain their cultural heritage.

Sharri Venno

Environmental planner

Houlton Band of

Maliseet Indians

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