When Mihku Sabattus was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Fort Drum in the early 2000s, he would show his friends there videos of his grandmother weaving baskets. When he would bring them to Indian Township for weekends away from the base, he would proudly introduce them to her. Molly Neptune Parker, who passed away last year, was a nationally renowned artisan and a respected Passamaquoddy leader.

“They fell in love with her, and they all knew her personally,” Sabattus, 37, said. “Just being able to tell them about her and having them watch videos of what she did really brought joy to me.”

Sabattus is part of a long tradition of military service by Native Americans. The state Bureau of Veterans Services does not have data that reflects the number of veterans from the tribes in Maine – Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy – but officials and historians said Wabanaki people have served in every armed conflict since the Revolutionary War and in all military branches.

Still, Indigenous people have long suffered discrimination and trauma in the United States, and veterans from those communities were often not recognized for their contributions. Maine was one of the last states in the country to allow Native people to vote in federal elections in the 1950s, for example, and even veterans who returned to tribal communities after the World Wars could not cast a ballot here.

In 2009, when Donald Soctomah was the Passamaquoddy tribal representative in the Maine Legislature, he sponsored a bill to create Native American Veterans Day. That effort succeeded, and the state now marks that occasion every June 21, in addition to the traditional observance for all veterans in November. Soctomah said one goal was to make Mainers more aware of the historic service by the tribal communities.

“Our community recognizes the veterans, and we treat them with honor,” Soctomah said. “But as soon as they step out of our community, even if they are wearing a uniform, because of the color of their skin, they’re treated different.”

The date is significant. On June 21, 1775, Penobscot Chief Joseph Orono traveled from what is now Maine and met with General George Washington at Watertown, Massachusetts. The American Revolution was in its early stages, and the chief agreed to support the cause against the British forces. That story is sometimes told on the date, like in a Native American Veterans Day proclamation issued by Gov. Janet Mills in 2019.

But Harald Prins, an anthropologist who has worked closely with Maine’s tribes and researched military service by Native American people, said it has another important component. Orono agreed to join forces with the revolutionaries if they would respect the tribal rights to their homelands. The chief kept his word, but the newborn nation did not.

“The selection of June 21 as Native American Veterans Day is really a reference to Chief Orono and the pledge to support the freedom struggle of the Americans against the colonial rulers, but it’s also a reminder of broken promises,” Prins said.

Charles Norman Shay, D-Day WWII veteran and Penobscot Elder from Maine, salutes after laying a wreath during a D-Day 76th anniversary ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, on June 6, 2020. Virginia Mayo/Associated Press

The years since are filled with examples of Native men and women who served this country in the armed forces.

One of the most famous is Charles Norman Shay, a Penobscot elder who was a 19-year-old Army medic in the first wave of soldiers to land on Omaha Beach during World War II. He has received many honors – including a Silver Star and the French Légion d’Honneur – and his name is on a memorial park in Normandy where a sculpted turtle honors nearly 200 Native American soldiers on the beach on D-Day.

Prins also recalled Melvin Neptune, who was from Indian Island like Shay and was on the same transport ship before the D-Day invasion. Neptune heard another Penobscot was on the boat and sought him out the night before the landing. In an interview later, Shay said they didn’t talk about combat: “Instead, we talked about home.”

James Francis Sr., director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot tribe, helped develop curriculum about Wabanaki people for Maine students. One unit focuses on military service and highlights many Penobscots who served throughout history, including Mary Therese Nelson, who in 1944 became the first woman from the tribe to join the U.S. Marine Corps. And for Francis, that research is also personal. His great uncle died in the Philippines in World War II when the vehicle he was operating hit a landmine, and his family has been trying for many years to find Donald Francis’ grave and bring his body home.

“Today, there’s been a lot more recognition,” Francis said. “That not only needs to continue, but we also need to reconcile some of those missteps in the past.”

Paul Downing served in the U.S. Army for nearly 22 years from 1984 to 2005. Now he works in emergency management and is on the National Advisory Council for FEMA. He said Native veterans have not always received the recognition they deserve in part because the relationship between Maine leaders and tribal communities deteriorated.

“I’m serving the land and the earth that I’m standing on,” Downing, who is Passamaquoddy, said. “We’re defending the lands of…our grandfathers and our great grandfathers and our great great grandfathers and all the way back. We’ve got connections to the state of Maine for the last 15,000 years.”

Mihku Sabattus knew his grandfathers had served in the military. He began to consider that option for himself during high school, and he was a senior on Sept. 11, 2001. He left for Army basic training a month after he graduated. He deployed to Iraq in 2003 for three months and then to Afghanistan later that same year for six months. He said he is glad to see the United States has finally removed its troops from the Middle East, and he doesn’t hold any sentimentality for his time there. Nearly two decades have passed, and he has another life now.

Sabattus decided not to reenlist when his three years were up, although he struggled at first to find his career path in the civilian world. He became a wildland firefighter and later joined the fire department in Nashville, Tenn. He went back to school to study exercise science, and he eventually moved back to Indian Township and became the assistant fire chief. He is married with two young sons.

Here, he has applied for and received tens of thousands of dollars in grants for his fire department. He can teach his children to hunt and fish in Maine, to be part of Passamaquoddy traditions. He sometimes remembers his grandmother by watching a video of her weaving baskets, like the ones he used to show his buddies years ago, and he feels glad his oldest son had enough years with her to remember.

“I always wanted to move home,” he said, “And give back to my community somehow.”


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