It is human nature to mark the passage of time. These occasions often celebrate the things we are proud of and want to recall.

We also mark the tragedies and the horrors that we face individually and together. There is something empowering about remembering, whether it is to celebrate and focus on the things we have accomplished or make sure we hold the lessons of the tumultuous times close to our hearts.

It has been an honor to be included in many events surrounding the women’s suffrage centennial to share my views as a Penobscot woman in Maine. Even though ratification of the 19th Amendment gave American women the vote 100 years ago, indigenous people in Maine couldn’t exercise that right in state elections until 1967. As a Penobscot and a woman, two historically oppressed and marginalized populations, I am well aware that I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, who were silenced and made invisible.

My grandmother was born in 1938 and indigenous people could not vote. For much of her life she was seen as less human than other humans. Even after we had the vote, we faced voter suppression and were told on occasion to go back to our reservations and to not participate in Maine elections.

When Congress debated suffrage for native nations, Sen. Jacob Howard of Michigan argued that he was not ready to go to the polls next to “Indian savages.” We live with the reality that our people were the victims of attempted genocide. Many were forcibly removed from homelands, we were persecuted for our traditional ways and our children were stolen by the government. And yet when it came time to come together as a country and create some semblance of equality, we were still seen as savages unworthy of the same rights as those who benefited from our suffering. If we seem angry or untrusting, it is because we feel these things in our very DNA.

We are sovereign nations that predate Maine. We are now woven into the fabric of this state, and when we show up to vote, we don’t ever take that right for granted. It feels to some like we are taking part in the system that tried to destroy us. To others, many who have served in the military, it feels patriotic and inclusive. To me, a political science major and government “nerd,” participating in state government is critical to my children’s future and my responsibility. All feelings are valid.

The “seat at the table” metaphor is often used when discussing those with difficult pathways to being enfranchised, but we are at the table, and I am proud of my people for fighting our way off the menu.

I serve as the appointed ambassador of the Penobscot Nation, one of the four federally recognized Indian tribes living in our ancestral territory, which is now called Maine. The Micmac, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot form the Wabanaki Confederacy, with five reservation communities in Maine and also some bands in the Maritime Canadian provinces. Our creation stories have long held our deep ties to this region, and anthropology backs this up with data showing our presence here for at least 13,000 years.

The state of Maine is about to have a year or so dedicated to the bicentennial of statehood. The official 200th birthday is March 2020, and events are underway and will continue into next summer. Mainers in the hundreds of cities and town in all 16 counties will celebrate in their own ways, and we all have a chance to reflect on what statehood means to us.

Another important milestone on the timeline this year is the 100-year anniversary of women being given the right to vote in Maine. We approach these anniversaries with mixed feelings, as our relationship with statehood and the right to vote is complicated. It is fertile ground in this moment to take a glance backward, examining our present, and preparing ourselves for what our future holds and how we want to shape the next chapter.

My message for Maine, as we commemorate these milestones, is to save space for all the stories to be told.


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