It is rare to hear Donna Loring raise her voice, but her eyes say it all when she disagrees with what is happening and is worried that once again the people she represents will be ignored, their rights overlooked, or their culture insulted.
“We’ve had such a long history of being marginalized and being sort of looked down on, and the fact is if people knew who we were and the contributions we’ve made to this state and the talents we all have … there’s just so much that the majority of society does not know about us.
Loring, 59, is a Vietnam War veteran, former police chief of Indian Island, and the tribe’s current representative in the Maine Legislature. She has written a book about her experiences at the State House and isn’t shy about naming names to explain her situation.
When asked if she was afraid of repercussions from her candid account, Loring said she’s not too worried.
“I do say in my book, there may have been other tribal representatives before me that had paid the consequences, [but] I’m hoping that we are in a more enlightened time so that there can be a light shone on things that are happening. I thought this is the right time to break almost 200 years of silence.”
Loring began writing her journal-style memoir, “In the Shadow of the Eagle,” in January 2000. She chronicles the ups and downs of tribal affairs in the state and her struggle to have a voice.
Loring began her first legislative term halfway through the session after her predecessor resigned. There was no one to show her the ropes and explain the ins and outs of the State House as a tribal member.
Loring thought she should start writing some sort of record that I could pass to other tribal representatives after me.
“That’s how it began, then as things progressed and things started happening and there were issues that people didn’t even understand. They had no clue,” Loring said. “I thought, ‘This really needs to be read by everyone, not just the tribal reps that come after me.'”
Maine is the only state in the country to have tribal representatives seated in its legislative body. The Penobscots and Passamaquoddys have had a presence at the State House since the 1820s, but they don’t have voting power on the house floor. They can serve on and chair committees, but can’t vote at that level either.
That power is something Loring has been fighting for since she began her stint in the Legislature in 1998. She ended that term in 2004, but went back the following year and continues to fight for American Indian rights in Maine.
“I just think it’s important that we’re visible as a people and that people understand we are human beings,” Loring said.
As a representative, she has worked to change place names in the state, such as those using the word “squaw,” which is offensive to tribal women. In keeping with her belief that “communication and education equals understanding,” Loring achieved her goal of requiring that American Indian history be taught in Maine schools.
That bill is the one she is most proud of.
“That was the highlight, I think. That’s going to plant a seed,” she said. “That’s going to educate children who are going to grow up and see the tribes through a different perspective. They’re going to know about us. To me, that’s the key thing, that’s the key issue.”
She has struggled to help the Penobscots become economically stable through gaming, a failed partnership with the state to operate a mail-order prescription drug facility, and changing the state’s interpretation of sovereign rights for the tribes.
That fight continued even Friday as she prepared to monitor a bill proposed to change the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.
The tribe has also recently lost a battle in the Legislature to allow it to operate slot machines at its Indian Island high-stakes beano facility.
Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis has said he’s frustrated with the way the state has treated the tribe and that he’s ready to sever all ties with the state.
Loring said she understands that frustration, but noted that it doesn’t change her desire to do the best she can for the people, culture and history she represents.
“There has been no remedy proposed by this administration to fix [the tribe’s economic state], or any legislation to fix it except for my [slots] bill,” Loring said. “I’m hoping that in the future there will be some sort of proposal or someone comes up with a way to fix that deficit we’re facing, and that’s immediate.”
She said that Francis’ opinion that it’s time to sever ties with the state has made people sit up and take notice.
“When you’re upset and frustrated, it’s easy to say you want to sever all ties,” Loring said. “You have to sort of weigh what that means and ties you want to sever.”
Loring grew up on Indian Island and received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Maine. She served in the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1968 in the communications center at Long Binh Army Base, about 30 miles from Saigon. There she processed the casualty reports for Southeast Asia.
Loring also is a graduate of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and was the first female police academy graduate to become a police chief in Maine. She served as the Penobscots’ police chief from 1984 to 1990.
Two years later she began working as the first woman ever appointed director of security at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. She left that position in 1997 and was appointed aide-de-camp to former Gov. Angus King in 1999. She was commissioned with the rank of colonel by the governor and was adviser to King on women veterans’ affairs.
Later that year, Loring received the Mary Ann Hartman Award from the University of Maine’s Women in Curriculum and Women’s Studies Program. The award recognizes outstanding Maine women for their accomplishments in the arts, politics, business, education, and community service.
The list of Loring’s accomplishments is extensive, but writing “In the Shadow of the Eagle” is something she’s very proud of having done.
“It’s important that the tribal rep, whoever that might be, has to walk a fine line because you’re actually the bridge between the tribe and the state, and I think our people saw the value of that way, way back when we would send our tribal rep to the Grand Council meetings in Quebec and all over,” Loring said. “The value and uniqueness of this book is the fact that there’s no other tribal rep in the country representing tribal government. We’re it, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddys. In almost 200 years there’s never been anything that describes the inside of the State House from our perspective and this book does that.”
“In the Shadow of the Eagle” is to be published in May 2008 by Tilbury House of Gardiner. Copies of the book are available in paperback for $20 by calling 800-582-1899.