In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Beyond Borders: A Wabanaki Perspective

Darren J. Ranco, PhD (Penobscot), Fall 2022

The collections in the Beyond Borders project are important and significant to many audiences, including, and especially, Wabanaki people. But the task of writing about historical documents and making them relevant to non-historians is often daunting. The Beyond Borders collections, specifically the Proprietors records represent the baseline of documents that define what becomes Maine starting in 1625, nearly two hundred years before Maine became a state. While the documents themselves do not often feature Wabanaki people or voices, it is important to think and consider the Wabanaki relevance of them, especially when we understand that the settlers referred to as the Pejepscot and Kennebec Proprietors shaped not only what becomes the State of Maine in 1820, but where we, as Wabanaki Nations and people, remain in our greater homeland, Ckuwapohnakiyik.

Taken together, the Pejepscot and Kennebec Proprietors are delineated by the areas English-speaking settlers made claim to, and are specific claims on pieces of Wabanaki territory defined by our relationship to the rivers and watersheds of our territory. Namely, the Androscoggin River where the Pejepscot Proprietors sold parcels for major settlements, and the Kennebec River watershed where the Kennebec Proprietors claimed and sold large tracts of land, including Norridgewock, the site of a brutal attack in 1724 on the traditionally inhabited Abenaki village by American militia men. For Wabanaki people, these river systems represent the location of Tribal Nations no longer here—wiped out by English and American greed, land speculation, and notions of European and American supremacy over the Indigenous stewards of what is now Maine. The descendants of these Tribal Nations are found within our Nations and communities today. Particularly recognized are the descendants of Norridgewock now in our Nations in the US and Canada at Penobscot, Odanak, Tobique, and others—so our responsibilities to these places remain ever-present, even though for non-Natives it may seem like long ago, or irrelevant.

Past meets Present

I am particularly struck by how similar the Proprietors’ documents and actions feel to the last sixty to seventy years of State and Federal dealings with Tribes, and attempts at reconciliation, justice, and healing. One thing made clear in the documents and historic scholarship that reference these documents, is that the settlers are considered the heart of the story. The key conflicts seem to be between the large land-owning proprietors and the settler-occupants of these tracts of land, often without a mention of Indigenous inhabitants or legacies.

Interestingly, the conflicts detailed in much of the earlier scholarship (such as in Taylor’s Liberty Men) is between the often-distant proprietors, who make their claims over Wabanaki lands, sometimes through deeds (or purported deeds) signed with Wabanaki leaders, and sometimes by vague agreements and grants or patents from even more distant courts or monarchies, and the noble English-speaking farmer-settlers on the front lines of 'making a new country.' More recent scholarship like that from Brooks, Saxine, Montgomery, and Blaakman shows Wabanaki people at the center of making, and responding to, settlers. This scholarship actually helps us understand the ways in which the contemporary Tribal-State-Federal relations in 2022 have played out in the last 60 years, and how all-encompassing and continuous the colonial framework remains across not only Maine, but all of Wabanaki territory.

Beginning in the 1950s, Wabanaki people, often led by those who had fought for the United States in wars starting in the 1940s, began a new era of diplomacy and attempts at asserting our Nationhood and responsibilities to our places. Sometimes, this took the form of traveling, making speeches, writing letters to state, national, and international authorities, and sometimes this took the form of open protest along major roadways and riverways in the form of more direct methods. These displays of Wabanaki diplomacy and political action have strong echoes with Wabanaki diplomats from the eighteenth century documented in the Proprietor records—Loron Sagouarroab and his shuttle diplomacy that made the 1725 Dummer’s Treaty and peace (for a while, anyway—until the English issued scalp bounties starting in 1740s and 1750s) possible; Pere Pole, a Revolutionary War veteran, and his attempts at protecting the Sandy River; and Polin, in his attempts at protecting the Presumpscot River, both through diplomacy and more direct dissent. These diplomacies and direct actions in the last six decades have led to some significant change such as federal recognition of Wabanaki Nations in Maine: Penobscot and Passamaquoddys in the 1970s, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in 1980, and Mi’kmaq Nation in 1991; the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980; and recent legislative victories during 2021-2022 supporting Passamaquoddy clean water and Wabanaki economic interests in the gaming industry.

Self Determination

What strikes me as similar between the past and contemporary times is not only that we—as Wabanaki people—have always been making our own history, but that settlers have never fully recognized our self-determination or really trusted us with it. In 2022, I see the Federal government, much like the distant proprietors of 17th and 18th centuries, as primarily fighting to preserve its control over its own interests. This control sometimes overlaps with Indigenous people, as they are the holders of original agreements that colonizers often benefit from such as deeds and treaties, the foundations for federal law and authority. This reminds me of events detailed in Saxine’s Properties of Empire (2019) where the General Court in Boston sided with the Penobscots in the 1730s, against local settlers, because of Dummer’s Treaty. This is like the outcome of the Passamaquoddy v. Morton case from 1975, which forced the Federal government into protecting Wabanaki land interests in what is now Maine, and led to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

Today, the State of Maine is much like the local settlers from long ago—fighting both Federal authority over their lands (although the state, like the local settlers, would not be there but for the distant authorities), and Indigenous controls guaranteed in early agreements and laws that hold sway over local and state authority. In the 1970s, to make clear they did not want a 'nation within a nation,' leaders across all political spectrums ran on platforms decrying, much like the “liberty men” of old, any possible settlement related to the illegal taking of Wabanaki lands by the states of Massachusetts and Maine after the 1790 Federal Non-Intercourse Act, making treaties the purview of the Federal government only. In some ways—those politicos won—the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was signed into law without a single dollar from the State of Maine (even though they had taken, time and again, from the Tribal funds they were 'managing' for 150 years), and with a diminishment of Tribal sovereignty based on clauses in the Act treating tribes as 'municipalities.'

What is not questioned, it seems, in either the 18th century, or the late 20th and early 21st centuries, is the overall structures of these debates. In the 18th century, the religious and racialized supremacy laid out in the Doctrine of Discovery was just becoming structured enough so that Indian deeds and title were only recognized as making it possible for European settlers—and European settlers only—to have full title to land, even though they had to keep fighting over which European’s claims were to win the day. In the modern era, we face similar discriminatory frameworks. For Wabanaki Nations, the Federal government is surely a better bet than the State, but it is no less beholden by its own sense of superiority and changing dictates, especially considering the Supreme Court decisions recognizing tribal jurisdiction in Oklahoma over criminal acts in Tribal territory in 2020 and removing this authority over non-Indians in 2022.

As the Wabanaki Tribal Nations in what is now Maine fought for sovereignty and self-determination in 2021-22, equal to the Tribes in Oklahoma and across the Nation, with the unpassed legislation LD 1626, we must recognize that this “equal-to” other Tribes across the United States is limited. It is not self-determination or sovereignty on our own terms, even with the recognized fact that our Nations pre-date the creation all the European nations and the United States. As Loron wrote in 1725, with the help of a French Jesuit priest, “Here lies my distinction—my Indian distinction. God hath willed that I have no Kind, and I be master of my lands in common.” This remains our distinction, and our responsibility as Wabanaki people—to care for our lands in common just as our ancestors did—freely, and without masters.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Blaakman, Michael Albert. Speculation Nation: Land and Mania in the Revolutionary American Republic, 1776-1803. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2016.

Brooks, Lisa. Our Beloved Kin a New History of King Philip's War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Alexandra L. Montgomery, “Projecting Power in the Dawnland: Weaponizing Settlement in the Gulf of Maine World, 1710-1800” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2020).

Saxine, Ian. Properties of Empire: Indians, Colonists, and Land Speculators on the New England Frontier. New York: New York University Press, 2019.

Taylor, Alan. Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820. The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.