Natalie Michelle remembers when her father used to tell her stories about fishing in Maine.
“You’d only have to stand on the shore and cast a net and then he said you’d pull up a whole netful of fish and that was all you needed for the day,” she said. “There’s been an extirpation of a lot of the fishery species that we relied on. They’re just not there anymore.”
Now Michelle, who is both Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, works with tribes around the state to protect those very same environments and species.
Michelle, an interdisciplinary PhD candidate at the University of Maine, is at the forefront of recent efforts to bring tribes in Maine together against the obstacles posed by climate change.
She is in the process of establishing an intertribal climate change coalition. Other Maine-based climate change groups that have had tribal membership — like Governor Janet Mills’ Maine Climate Council — have involved state actors, but this group would be specifically charged with developing culturally relevant adaptation strategies for tribes in Maine.
‘This is our workbook’
It started with a report.
Supported by the University, Michelle finished a project in 2017 called the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Tribal Comprehensive Adaptation Planning report, a nearly 82-page document which aimed to articulate the major climate change-related concerns of tribes in Maine.
Michelle said the project was a necessary step for communities that have lacked a cohesive voice on the issue of climate change. She interviewed traditional harvesters and members of each tribe’s natural resource department staff, compiling their worries in the report and scrupulously analyzing by hand transcriptions of all her interviews.
There are five tribal communities and four federally recognized tribes in Maine: the Penobscot Nation, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy, who have two reservations in Washington County.
Michelle sees the report as the first step in better preparing tribes in Maine for new environmental realities. It laid the groundwork for taking action on climate change adaptation. That’s her priority now.
While the intertribal coalition is still in its nascent stages, Michelle has big plans. She wants it to be a forum where tribal members can collaborate on tailored solutions for climate change, a need she hasn’t yet seen answered by existing groups.
“[The tribes] felt that they didn’t have a whole lot of voice in the state of Maine in terms of fisheries or river issues or those kinds of conflicts that have come up over the years,” she said.
One of the main goals of this partnership will be creating a climate change adaptation workbook targeted toward the Maine environment and based on Wabanaki epistemologies and traditional values. The workbook would be based on the federal regional climate adaptation workbook, a strategy guide for natural resource policy and management in a dynamic and rapidly changing global system, and will take into account traditional ecological knowledge and knowledge transfer.
Traditional ecological knowledge often denotes a set of beliefs and practices implemented into tribal decision making. For the Penobscot, for example, decisions are made thinking about ramifications seven generations in the future.
Michelle said that similar frameworks have already been successfully developed by other federally recognized tribes.
“There are tribes that have already developed that,” Michelle explained. “But it was based on their own epistemology. And so we want to have our own that is unique to this environment.”
The Maine-specific workbook, if brought to fruition, will take inspiration from projects like Dibaginjigaadeg Anishinaabe Ezhitwaad: A Tribal Climate Adaptation Menu created by the Anishinaabe group of tribes in the midwestern United States and Canada. The first part of the name of the workbook in the Anishinaabemowin language means “Doing something based on the Anishinaabe way.”
An issue of sovereignty, too
For Michelle, this work is not only about safeguarding the tribe’s economies and customs, it’s about protecting their sovereignty.
Creating an action group and climate change workbook is, in her eyes, an expression of autonomy for tribes in Maine. For too long, she said, indigenous communities in Maine have had to negotiate with the state about natural resource management in an unequal power relationship.
With these initiatives, she hopes that the tribes will develop strategies and collaborative partnerships for adaptation that prioritize tribal concerns and respect traditional ecological knowledge.
Referencing years of legal disputes between the tribes and the state on a variety of issues, Michelle said, “the Tribes haven’t been able to focus their resources that they do have on addressing some of these climate change issues, because they’re always litigating with the state. And we feel that it’s deliberate, so that we can’t build cultural solvency through our self determination efforts. And it’s another way of sort of kicking the can down the road.”
Michelle pointed to the ongoing discussions in the Maine Legislature over the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement, which seek to put an end to some of those legal disputes.
In 1980, in an effort to avert expensive and time-consuming litigations over land claim issues, the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Houlton Band of Maliseet signed an agreement with the state of Maine which was subsequently modified by the state, sent to Congress and ratified. The agreement said that the tribes would rescind their claim on nearly two-thirds of land in Maine and put a moratorium on future claims.
It also included a slew of legal changes to the relationship between the state and the tribes. In order to be included in changes made by new federal Indian laws, for example, tribes in Maine needed to be specifically named in the law.
The document has effectively dictated the relationship between the tribes and the state for the last 40 years, time during which jurisdictional conflicts over land and water protection have arisen between the state and tribes.
This spring, a coalition composed of tribal leaders, a representative from the Mills administration and state lawmakers presented 22 recommendations to the state legislature which they claim would fix the errors established by the Land Claims Settlement Act. As of now, deliberation on the bill has been postponed until the legislature resumes after the session was cut short due to the outbreak of coronavirus.
The recommendations are varied but united by a theme: recognition of tribal sovereignty by the state. One calls for the tribes to be able to regulate fishing and hunting on tribal lands, another for greater jurisdiction of tribal courts.
There are some that have an explicit environmental dimension, with one calling for the restoration of tribes’ rights “to exercise regulation of natural resources and land use” in accordance with federal Indian law.
Advocates of reforming the Land Claims Settlement Act say that doing so would be a recognition of tribal sovereignty and an important change to the tribe-state relationship.
Penobscot Nation member Dawn Neptunes Adams, an activist and journalist with the Sunlight Media Collective, believes that the current arrangement with the tribes has led to an increase in environmental degradation. For example, she said companies have been allowed to pollute tribal waters in Penobscot Territory.
“If the state of Maine actually had to follow federal Indian law, we wouldn’t constantly have to show up at the Maine State House to remind lawmakers to respect our stewardship of the land and water, or to petition them to not give industrial polluters harmful permits,” Adams said. “If our jurisdiction was recognized, we would do what the state has consistently failed to do: protect the environment for all the people of Maine, and for the next seven generations.”
It’s against this complex backdrop that the climate work of Michelle and her colleagues is taking place. For her and so many others, the question of how the tribes will develop and carry out tailored climate-change mitigation policies could be influenced by whatever legal and political developments arise in the near future.
Photo: This portion of the Penobscot River that flows around the western side of Marsh Island, home to the University of Maine, is often referred to as the “Stillwater River.” | Brawley Benson, Beacon