A paper collage showing a dream-like scene where two Black women’s busts raise from a patterned landscape of blue and white ribbons. In the background, there are mountains.
Image credit: Yannick Lowery / www.severepaper.com

Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s fall 2023 issue, “How Do We Create Home in the Future? Reshaping the Way We Live in the Midst of Climate Crisis.”

In this conversation, Cyndi Suarez, NPQ’s president and editor in chief; Donald Soctomah, Tribal historic preservation officer for the Passamaquoddy Tribe; Darren Ranco, Penobscot Nation anthropologist and academic; Mali Obomsawin, Indigenous musician, scholar, and community organizer from Abenaki First Nation at Odanak; Gabriela Alcalde, executive director of the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation; and Kate Dempsey, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine, discuss the future of Tribal sovereignty, Land Back, and rematriation of the planet.

Cyndi Suarez: Can you share a little about the state of Tribal sovereignty in Maine?

Donald Soctomah: The way I feel, Tribal sovereignty is always within the Tribe; it’s just not recognized within the state. And the battle with the state over Tribal sovereignty and our rights has always been recognized by the federal government; it’s only the state government that’s not recognizing our sovereignty. And all the other Tribes outside of Maine have full Tribal sovereignty. We did have legislation this last session, and it made it through the House and the Senate, first round—and the governor vetoed it. In the second round, the override didn’t happen.

Darren Ranco: I think what Donald said is accurate. I think for the last 200 years, the state has had an investment in the wardship of us as Native people and in not recognizing us as sovereigns. And Donald and others have written and thought about all of that as well in terms of that system. But I think what has shifted in this last decade is there have been these 21st-century artifacts, or opportunities, or experiences that show a shift—at least, as I think of it. And it’s a lot of Native women in particular; but other Indigenous educators, too, across the state have really grown our allies and our political bandwidth in this last decade. And many of these things—probably starting with the Penobscot River Restoration Project,1 but stretching back this last decade or two—mark a shift in education and insight and a new form of activism, I think, by us as Wabanaki people.

CS: Is there anything else that anybody wants to add?

Mali Obomsawin: I would like to acknowledge that I’m a citizen of a nation that is not one of the nations in so-called Maine, so in terms of federal Indian law sovereignty, it does not apply to me in that context.

CS: Interesting. May I ask why? You’re in Maine, but you don’t have the same issue?

MO: The Wabanaki people of Quebec are federally recognized nations of Quebec, and the sovereignty extends across the border as pertains to Jay’s Treaty,2 but not as pertains to Indian law in the United States. We could spend hours discussing why that is.

CS: Thank you.

“Land Back as a movement, as a political and legal movement by Tribal nations across Turtle Island, has focused on the return of things that have been taken from us through colonial policies. So our land, our languages, our kinship systems, our governances were forced out of us.”

Gabriela Alcalde: And Cyndi, a report was released at the end of last year by a Harvard researcher that notes the economic impacts and social impacts of this lack of full recognition of Tribal sovereignty. It’s a pretty devastating economic impact.3  

CS: Thank you so much for that information.

DS: We’ve had some people in our communities say it’s like economic genocide—and the report makes that perfectly clear.

CS: Can you say a bit more about that? How are those connected?

DS: The report shows that, nationwide, sovereign Tribes receive—I don’t know what percent, Darren probably knows the percentage. But there’s quite a difference in income that’s available to the Maine Tribes—quite a bit of treaty rights—and the rest of the nation.4  

CS: Okay, thank you for that. So the term that I think you’ve been using is land rematriation. I had a question about what that term means. And is it different from repatriation? I’m just curious about the term—for people who don’t know, which includes me.

DR: I’m happy to talk about how I define these things, but across the three of us you’ll probably get three different answers—and that’s the beauty of this work: our passions can exist in this multiplicity. The way I have presented this for people to track is that Land Back as a movement, as a political and legal movement by Tribal nations across Turtle Island, has focused on the return of things that have been taken from us through colonial policies. So our land, our languages, our kinship systems, our governances were forced out of us. These are things that were purposely taken from us through colonial policies and forced assimilation—that sort of thing.

“Rematriation puts a magnifying glass on the fact that women and the feminine role in governance over our societies and in our relationality have been decentered from where they originally were, right along the same timeline as land became private property. Women were becoming property as well, here, or being forced to be seen as property through colonialism.”

Connected to that work, though, which is much more than land return, than #LandBack—that work—is what many of us call rematriation, which is much more focused on the cultural frameworks that we bring to the table as Indigenous people. And it’s a real focus on tradition and our interrelationship with other humans and nonhumans and places and all of those things—that is what rematriation is. And in many Indigenous cultures, this is seen as the domain of women-centered work.

As you mentioned, there’s this idea of repatriation work out there too, which is also a kind of return. Repatriation work has been about returning our ancestors and some of our cultural patrimony through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,5 and other sorts of social pressures. But for us, I think it is this interrelationship—the rematriation work—that we’re seeking to restore and make vibrant once again. And in some ways, it doesn’t get attached to property relations, exactly; it gets attached to relations that we as Indigenous people bring from our traditional cultures and our sense of belonging as people, of this place here in this context—what is now known as Maine, as Wabanaki people, but the larger Wabanaki territory that we belong to and which belongs to us.

CS: Thank you. I have a follow-up question that maybe can be answered by others—or maybe you want to answer it, Darren. Are they meant to go alongside each other? Or does one include the other? I wonder if rematriation includes repatriation, but they’re so different, so I’m just wondering.

DR: I think rematriation work is in some ways bigger and encompasses more things that are connected to our sense of culture and being. But I’m reluctant to say that either one happens without the other on some level. I’m not going to overdefine it, either, because I think so much of rematriation requires us to sort out some property relations—like for us to have access to things and to maintain our interrelationships with certain species, like sweetgrass, or black ash or brown. We need to sort out some of those property/land issues. They don’t just happen automatically without some of that Land Back politics, law, policy kind of thing.

CS: Thank you. Would anyone like to add or share a different perspective on the difference?

MO: I think the question of the difference between repatriation and rematriation is not the right question, only because they’re not sort of opposites at all. They go together, like Darren was saying. But I would further add to the conversation on rematriation that through colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism and land privatization were instituted here in Indigenous homelands. So rematriation puts a magnifying glass on the fact that women and the feminine role in governance over our societies and in our relationality have been decentered from where they originally were, right along the same timeline as land became private property. Women were becoming property as well, here, or being forced to be seen as property through colonialism. So through rematriation, we recenter the governance roles of women and the feminine in our culture while we also liberate the land back to our kinship governance.

Kate Dempsey: Mali, I might just build upon some of that. Whenever I write rematriation, Outlook tries to correct that word! I think it would be easy to assume, coming from The Nature Conservancy, that the only action we can take in support is Land Back. That is an important and essential piece of it, but what I’m hearing my colleagues speak to is that their relationships to the earth were severed, and we need to consider how to tend to those breaches. The public has access to millions of acres of land that we, the conservation community, “own”: we own it in the structure that requires “ownership” for access. And so the conservation community is starting to challenge ourselves to think more expansively about what access can look like in addition to the more obvious approach—Land Back—that people focus on. And I think the more holistic relationship piece of it is key.

DS: I’m seeing that happen more and more. Over the years, we get more conservation groups contacting us, or the large landowners wanting our input on their management plan—wanting our input on access or listening to our concerns. We’re currently working with Acadia National Park on…well, it’s not Land Back, but it’s rematriation in a way, because we’re going to be allowed access to harvest sweetgrass on a certain portion of the land. And to me, that’s bringing culture to a landmass and being able to practice a culture and traditions that way.

CS: It’s interesting that you could have rematriation without Land Back… 

DS: That’s my interpretation.

CS: Can you talk a little about how this work started? How did it develop to this point?

DS: It started about 400 years ago. With treaty after treaty, the land line between Massachusetts and the Tribe kept getting moved and moved and moved. And then, once it reached the end of Maine’s boundary, it started shrinking the community lands. And then the final treaties with the Tribe designated special spots where the Tribe existed. You probably could write quite a few volumes of books about it. But for Passamaquoddy, the Land Back issue came back to us about 20 years ago, when one of the islands on the adjacent township became “owned” by a paper company. And it was a burial island. And the Tribe had been trying to purchase the island from the paper company, but the paper company said, “No, no, no.” Finally, there was a change in administration with the paper company, and they said, “Yes, yes, yes.” And that’s when a group from Quebec owned the paper company, and they wanted to form a relationship with us. And they asked, “How can we form this relationship?” And I told them, “We have this island. We need that back. That island needs us as much as we need it.” And they said, “It’s yours.”

So the movement, for us, started back then, a while ago, and then it died off. It sort of goes in cycles. But this right here is benefiting everybody; nationally, it’s really taking off, and it’s creating better relations between the Tribe and our land neighbors.

CS: When you say “it’s really taking off,” what do you mean?

DS: Well, I see other states, other Native Tribes across the nation, where this is going on. There’s the Land Back and rematriation happening across the country, especially with the administration now in the White House. They seem to be moving in a better direction to include the Tribes. That’s my political statement.

“I think that there’s probably been a parallel history of land trusts themselves having various self-reflective moments in these last 20 years, saying, ‘How do we become more and more relevant? And how do we do our work ethically as it relates to Indigenous people?’ Realizing that land trusts and conservation groups were often bad players during the primary colonial period.”

DR: Yes, I think of the transformations, in terms of education and understanding. Donald was Passamaquoddy representative to the state of Maine legislature, and he, along with Donna Loring [former senior advisor of Tribal Affairs in Maine], put in some really great legislation that broadened horizons and really shifted what was possible (or what we thought was possible) by our representatives to our state legislature—having bills that were designed by Wabanaki people for the betterment of Wabanaki people and the state of Maine.

There was the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which brought in different folks and fundraisers from the land trust and other sorts of environmentally engaged communities.6 And then starting in 2011, 2012, and then between 2013 and 2015, there were a number of women in particular—but Tribal Wabanaki folks generally—who engaged the state of Maine with a truth and reconciliation process that also shifted the terms of what it means to work together and be allies and take on really difficult challenges. That work was heartfelt, and it shifted people’s understanding once again and created the opportunity for voices and understandings about the child welfare system and the removal of Native children in both Maine’s history and its ongoing role in colonization.7

And then in more recent years, with my Tribe, the Penobscot Nation—our problems with the state of Maine and the river, our namesake river…the state seeking to gain more control over our river—which eventually was appealed a couple of times, and we eventually lost…but those were also opportunities to bring together allies and build relations.

Then, what you see in the most recent years, with the Tribes coming together to form the Wabanaki Alliance8 —which is a sort of political nonprofit that the Tribes have set up to help support the legislation to fix our broken forms of sovereignty here…all those things are artifacts, again, or experiences of a new understanding and a new possibility related to Wabanaki and to Indigenous Wabanaki and non-Wabanaki relations.

And I think that there’s probably been a parallel history of land trusts themselves having various self-reflective moments in these last 20 years, saying, “How do we become more and more relevant? And how do we do our work ethically as it relates to Indigenous people?” Realizing that land trusts and conservation groups were often bad players during the primary colonial period in helping provide justification for the removal of Indigenous people from our homelands. And even back in the ’90s, there were several land trust organizations fighting against our Tribal sovereignty. When a couple of bills came up related to our regulatory authority in the unorganized territories, the land trusts came out against some legislation that would have helped our sovereignty back in the ’90s, so there’s a whole set of histories of transformation that lead us to the current day.

And, again, more volumes of work. But those are the highlights, in my opinion. John Banks [Director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Indian Nation, and a key partner in the Penobscot River Restoration Project], who’s not here in this conversation, is really important to this work—especially with the Penobscot River Restoration Project—and talks about the land claims settlement as land return work, too. Obviously, what happened then, in 1980, had a huge influence on where we are today.9

MO: I would also add that beyond the confines of Maine, and beyond the Wabanaki Tribes, as well, there have been constant reoccupations of ancestral lands by nations across the continent and the United States and Canada. And especially in that period in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, I think a lot about the Mohawk reoccupations of their territories in upstate New York and on the other side of the border. I think Tribal nations have been learning from each other in terms of how to do Land Back—and what’s happening now is another iteration of it. Through Bomazeen Land Trust10 and a few other community-led groups, we do things on the community level, where we try to get land restored to community holdership in a way that we can harvest and live on the land. And that’s just another avenue for the community to access and rematriate land and our cultures. So there are a lot of different threads to the movement, and they extend, as I think both Donald and Darren said, across the whole continent.

CS: That’s interesting. So even after land’s given back, it gets taken back. There’s a whole history of kind of going back and forth.

MO: Yep, yep.

CS: Anyone else want to add to that?

“Recognizing that The Nature Conservancy joined the Penobscot River Restoration Project without having done the work of building relationships, I’m honored still today that we were welcomed into accomplishing this world-recognized effort to restore this river.”KD: On the Maine TNC’s website, we articulate some of this most recent history. Historically, The Nature Conservancy in the US approaches everything with an ecological question: Is this important for biodiversity? And outside of the US, First Nations, Indigenous peoples have really shown us in the US—and I’m talking here as the conservation community—that working in allyship with Indigenous communities is absolutely essential. Indigenous peoples manage so much land and so many waters across the world, and do it in ways that are more sustainable.

So I feel like this is a place where we’ve learned a lot from our colleagues outside of the US. And to Darren’s point about ownership, the conservation world is rooted in taking and owning: the national parks, the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] lands, the land trust private lands. And so that’s the framework. And outside of the US, that’s a framework that’s quite different, frankly. And then after the Penobscot project, it helped us in Maine to say, “Let this be the beginning, not the end, of our collaboration.” I’ll just speak for TNC once again, because TNC is a global organization: we’re guided by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples11 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.12 That guides all our work. And it’s always a learning process for US-based conservation organizations, but I am glad we are working together in Maine and moving toward being better allies. The Nature Conservancy is committed to this worldwide. One thing I’ve learned: what happens in Maine is heard about in Māori territory [New Zealand], so we need to be as consistent as possible.

Recognizing that The Nature Conservancy joined the Penobscot River Restoration Project without having done the work of building relationships, I’m honored still today that we were welcomed into accomplishing this world-recognized effort to restore this river. But now, especially given the history of conservation that Darren references, it is time for us to do our own learning and act conscientiously to foster rematriation. And Gabriela, the Sewall Foundation has really encouraged the conservation community’s effort to do our own learning through the First Light collaboration.13 Together, we recognize that non-Native organizations need to do our own learning, so that we aren’t putting that burden on our Native colleagues here. I think one great part about the First Light collaboration is that we are creating change within the conservation community, recognizing our own history and finding and learning ways together, with our Wabanaki neighbors, to address aspects of rematriation and Land Back for TNC Maine. This ongoing learning and deeper collaboration with the Wabanaki people and Indigenous communities will support our efforts to create a world where all people and nature thrive.

“I think non-Native land trusts require that nobody live on the land. And they have very rigid rules about what you can do on the land. For instance, harvesting, or having ceremonial fires, or controlled burns, things like that—these traditional ways of taking care of the land that we hold in our communities across Turtle Island that are no longer practiced, and are definitely not practiced by White-led land trusts, in a daily way.”

The Tribes, in collaboration with First Light, have developed the Wabanaki Conservation Commission, which will determine together what rematriation looks like, “on the ground.” This is how the conservation community stops (for example) each group approaching Donald and asking for input. That’s a huge burden for anyone, even figuring out who the heck each organization is! That learning and understanding of our own history gives us a place from which to begin to do the work of supporting voice, choice, and action—supporting sovereignty through the ways in which we give land and access back, and much more. Now when Donald, or others within the Tribe, asks us as a community to work together on a land deal that he’s identified, and we’ve said we will commit to doing that work, then together we will find a way. We do have land buying tools, for example, that we have used for decades, and sometimes those tools are really helpful. We’ve had to learn a lot about what access really means, what restoration really means.

So I would say we’re all on a journey in the conservation world. And hopefully, building trusting relationships with each other means that we can tell each other the truth when one of us stumbles—and that I really appreciate.

CS: Thank you, Kate. Mali, you joined this conversation later, so I think I missed your role in this. Can you say a little bit about that?

MO: Sure. I am currently the executive director of Bomazeen Land Trust, which is an inter-Tribal Wabanaki community-led land trust. So it is not affiliated with the Tribal governments in a direct way or overseen by them but led by more grassroots organizers, who work directly in community for food sovereignty, rematriation, and land returns.

CS: My next question builds on something I think you’ve spoken to a little bit. Are there different approaches between Native-run land trusts and non-Native land trusts?

MO: I would say so. I think the major difference that we run into at Bomazeen is that in Indigenous lifeways, we don’t see a rigid separation between living on the land and taking care of the land. In fact, you have to live on the land and be there regularly in order to carry out your role as a land protector—which all Wabanaki people hold as a responsibility from our ancestors. That’s part of sovereignty, so that tends not to be the first instinctual understanding from non-Native land trusts.

I think non-Native land trusts require that nobody live on the land. And they have very rigid rules about what you can do on the land. For instance, harvesting, or having ceremonial fires, or controlled burns, things like that—these traditional ways of taking care of the land that we hold in our communities across Turtle Island that are no longer practiced, and are definitely not practiced by White-led land trusts, in a daily way.

I think both Donald and Darren can speak to the kind of hurdles around what land stewardship looks like to our communities versus the traditional conservation group, in terms of harvesting rights.

DR: I’m thinking about how Kate framed this issue of tools. Many of these tools exist in this space between the frameworks that we bring as caretakers—that Mali just referenced as Indigenous people—and what has been thought about from a land trust perspective. This is some of the very challenging and creative work that requires things like access agreements, for example, on lands currently held by land trusts. You would think that would be a win–win. We would have to manage the land, and they would still maintain some kind of role and have a financial and other kind of responsibility with something being held as a land trust—but there are so many rules, and these are legacies of colonial systems of property.

Quite honestly, I don’t think it’s the preference of land trusts that these rules bind them into these positions—like what Mali talked about, that it has to be emptied first and not touched, and that somehow that is for the good of the land. It is not. Look at the fires everywhere; look at everything that we’re going through and that is being further exacerbated by climate change. Even things that would be protocols of a kind—where we would say, “Hey, we want to create an access to this place for people to harvest sweetgrass”—are not usually countenanced. Donald referenced this a little bit, and at the National Park they’ve dealt with this issue in some interesting and creative ways. But oftentimes, whatever we would do as part of a cultural access agreement, the land trust would have to kind of be out there (I mean, not literally, but it felt like it) in a white coat with a clipboard—observing us, making sure we weren’t screwing anything up. They’re required to make sure the land, the conservation easement, is not damaged. And that is driven through with the idea that humans and nature cannot coexist. It’s still that legacy.

And so for us, it’s so culturally different from the legacy of the tools that they have. So I think it’s just that those are examples where I was like, Oh, man, these access agreements are gonna be way more…like, let’s just return all the land, you know? I mean, I’m not giving up, and we have access agreements, and the stuff in the National Park is super exciting, and all of that. It’s not to undermine that. But it is those legacies. And those tools are tied into a colonial, non-Indigenous way of seeing things.

CS: Do you want to say anything on this, Donald? 

DS: I think that covered that pretty good.

CS: So you work across almost oppositive worldviews of “no relationship” versus “everything is related.”

KD: Well, there’s that myth of wilderness, which is that it’s “untouched”—think of all those celebrated White authors who talk about the “absent wilderness.” And of course, who guided those authors to the woods is a whole other part of the story. When you can look at it through the eyes of practically the rest of the world, it’s like, oh, my gosh, all the assumptions. Gabriela, you should jump in here, because you’ve seen it. You came into this world very much from the public health perspective and had to learn about the conservation world. And you had a lot of those “Holy cow, you do what?” moments.

“For a funder…how do you support work that is about relationships, not just among humans but with the land, with the waters, with animals, with language?”

GA: I think that not having been part of the land trust or environmental organizations’ cultures, and also being an immigrant from Latin America that has a very Mestizo culture, I was shocked. And I was reflecting on how this is a situation where there are profoundly different worldviews and underlying values. So what’s exciting to me about some of what’s been evolving in Maine is that there’s an openness to engaging with cultural humility by non-Native organizations—land trusts and funders. It’s a different language—literally and symbolically. I’ll give an example with Sewall [Elmina B. Sewall Foundation]. We have been a funder of environmental efforts from the beginning. That’s actually Sewall’s origins—we’re animal welfare and environmental. But in our focus area of supporting Wabanaki communities and Tribal governance, we fund language, we fund food sovereignty. And sometimes I’ll have somebody ask, “Well, why do you support that?” And it’s been interesting for me as a Mestizo immigrant to try to play that bridge role, because I, too, don’t understand White dominant American culture—but I’m obviously also not Wabanaki. It’s been interesting to try to help that translation in our organization—that you can’t separate language and what language does for your worldview and your understanding from a relationship. And a relationship is very different from ownership. So I think that there have been some profound—from my perspective—openings for those who are non-Native to really start to understand what interconnectedness can actually mean. It is one of the core values at Sewall, and yet we have a very elementary understanding of interconnectedness compared to what Indigenous communities understand that to mean—because it is a relationship.

And it’s been interesting to think about how you translate that. For land trusts, how do you translate that into what they’re legally required to do and their role in the ownership of land? But for a funder, what does that mean? And how do you support work that is about relationships, not just among humans but with the land, with the waters, with animals, with language? That requires a different type of trust, a practice of trust. Not a consumerist, capitalist version of, like, let’s shake on it and then let’s sign something—but to really immerse yourself in cultural humility and to understand that the damage done to the world has primarily been because we have attacked, been violent against, resisted Indigenous knowledge.

And so there’s been this sort of opening. And I see a lot of the environmental groups leaning in with trust, even though they don’t fully understand it. And to me, it’s an exciting moment when people can let go of controls and say, “I don’t actually understand it, because it’s not at the root of how I was raised. But because of my trust in you and my trust in the need to repair the harm that’s been done, we are going to start changing the way that we operate.”

And I think that’s some of what you saw, Cyndi, at the “Solidarity in Action” panel.14 You saw a multiracial, multisectoral group of people who were saying, “Yes, we don’t all fully speak the same language to each other, but we believe in this.” And that, to me, shows some progress beyond agreements or any sort of legal arrangement. I think that you have to have the cultural shift, and I think that is part of what people in what is now Maine have really been investing in: how do you create cultural shifts and cultural humility, so that we can actually respect and trust what our Wabanaki peers are telling us? It’s not just, “Oh, here’s a project,” but, “Here’s a way of life. How do you engage in partnership?”

“Eighty percent of land-based biodiversity is on the 22 percent of lands that have some form of Indigenous control, with the Indigenous people being only 4 percent of the population of the planet.”

And I’ll take this opportunity to say that my primary message to funders would be to understand that when you’re working with Indigenous communities, you’re doing international work. I don’t think most foundations that are working in the United States would tell a foreign government what to do. We need to understand that this is international work. So how does that change how we practice? How does that change our engagement and our relationships?

CS: So given everything you said, are Indigenous communities leading this work? And if so, how did that get to happen? I’ve heard lots of things happening differently in Maine than are happening anywhere else I’ve heard of so far.

DR: I’m reflecting on the panel…a couple of things: It is clear that the message that Indigenous people are sharing is resonating across a lot of different communities—non-Indigenous communities. So if you look around the world at climate justice movements, it is now Indigenous people, primarily, at the forefront of climate justice discussions. And I think when you’re looking at the most cutting edge, as a scholar I’d say the scholarship has caught up with this notion from the World Bank, which came up with the first kind of correlation of the concentrations of biodiversity on Indigenous-held lands by Indigenous people.15 Eighty percent of land-based biodiversity is on the 22 percent of lands that have some form of Indigenous control, with the Indigenous people being only 4 percent of the population of the planet.16 Scholars have now also shown that the best kinds of conservation have Indigenous people in leadership and other kinds of firm roles. So in terms of measuring the efficacy, the long-term benefits, the biodiversity—the scholars are now catching up to the kind of correlation piece the World Bank published back in 2008.

I think the next step—and this is where I connect back to our panel—is the step that is happening now; this is why I think there’s the kind of proliferation of people thinking outside the funding box: that now the resources should be in Indigenous people’s hands as well. The next shift is, clearly, Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and participation and leadership. All these things are at the forefront of what we know to be good in terms of caretaking our planet, but we’re still not the decision-makers around how funds get allocated and how national policies get developed—although, here in the US, the fact that our secretary of the Interior [Deb Haaland] and the director of our National Park Service [Charles F. Sams III] are both Indigenous people is a shift. I think we’re seeing some good work come out of the mere fact of their leadership in those positions.

So I think it has become clear that we, as Indigenous people, are at the forefront of the interrelationship, and the scholarship supports that. But then the next framework is about decision-making and authority that come only with the control over resources, and how resources are allocated, and how political decisions are made—which is probably always going to be this big challenge in terms of being a minority and being treated as wards. We haven’t been treated as equals. All those things, those histories, play into some of these challenges.

“Anytime the Tribes get land back or have access to land, it’s helping our culture, helping the next generation to practice that culture—because sometimes you have to be on certain parcels of land, certain areas, because land is considered sacred. And if you have that view that all land is sacred, you’re going to treat it with respect.”

CS: Thank you, Darren. Mali, do you want to say anything about that? How do you see the role of Indigenous communities as leaders?

MO: Darren did a great job. I’m a community organizer, so I don’t really bargain in the upper echelons of anything. I will say that on the ground, in the community organizing spaces, I think Indigenous people are leading a lot of the conversations. And we are at the forefront of a lot of the racial justice organizing and solidarity-building parts of the environmental justice movement, as well—especially in Maine. And I’m really proud to say that Bomazeen has been a big part of that and of restoring our more communal practices of governance and of relationality. I feel like that sounds very vague because we don’t have time to go into it, but I’m proud of the work we’re doing on the community level—and on the more national level, and regional, even. We are still actively being colonized—and until Indigenous sovereignty is respected and we’re able to govern over our lands, I don’t see that that shift has happened yet, obviously. Giving us control over the resources of our lands would be an important step. (Darren said it better.)

CS: No, no, I love what you added, Mali. Thank you. I wish I could hear an example of the governance that you’re talking about. Do you have one you could share?

MO: Something that immediately comes to mind is that I think Wabanaki and most Indigenous cultures have incredible equalizing practices. Colonial society is set up in a very hierarchical way, and our kind of social relationships end up mimicking that. Even on the ground level and in a lot of the movements, that has been something that has torn things apart: that we can’t get away from these practices of hierarchy even when we’re trying to build movements of solidarity. And I find that in Wabanaki teachings, equalizing practices like talking circles and these other things that we receive from our ancestors—the way that they did things—are very helpful. That’s one example that comes to mind immediately, in addition to recentering the feminine.

CS: Thank you so much. Donald, did you want to add anything?

DS: Within my lifetime, I’ve seen part of the relationship between all the organizations and the Tribes. I think it’s reaching a point where it’s important for us to have allies, to work together to achieve our goal. Anytime the Tribes get land back or have access to land, it’s helping our culture, helping the next generation to practice that culture—because sometimes you have to be on certain parcels of land, certain areas, because land is considered sacred. And if you have that view that all land is sacred, you’re going to treat it with respect. And nobody can argue with that. I like the way things are going. It could get better, but we’re going in the right direction.

KD: I would just add that my colleagues are being incredibly gracious, so thank you. The system is set up in ways so that organizations like the one I am part of have power within the current systems. Our organization has the money, we have the relationships to the Department of the Interior, et cetera, et cetera. It’s all set up for us to not let anyone else lead. I’m humbled that anyone would say that we’re making progress. So I’m glad about that—but we are in a system that we need to be a part of changing.

One thing particular to Maine that’s different, in addition to the lack of true sovereignty, is that here there are more lands in private ownership than anywhere else in the country. So that immediately shifts to why our work within the conservation community is so essential here: our work is based on private interactions between willing sellers and willing buyers. One of the reasons is 19.6 million privately owned acres of land.17

CS: Kate, when you say “private,” can you explain that more?

KD: With 89 percent of the state being forested, Maine is the most forested state in the nation, and 92 percent of that land is held in some form of private ownership.18 Organizations, investment firms, timber management, and individuals own lots of land, as does the state of Maine. It is hard to influence access vis-à-vis all private lands. You can’t go ring a doorbell easily with 90,000 different landowners! So I think it is incumbent on private landowners here to consider how to adjust our thinking and our approach. TNC, by the way, owns 300,000 acres of land.

CS: And the goal is for TNC to give it all back? What is the ultimate goal? I mean, I know there are more goals besides the land, and I’m just wondering.

KD: The goal is to work together to figure out ways to get back to the conversation around rematriation. And as Mali mentioned earlier, it is complex. Together we are focusing on what TNC’s Brie Fraley, director of North American Indigenous Lands and Communities, calls, “Land Forward.” That may mean that there’s Land Back when wanted and appropriate—appropriate meaning it’s wanted and we have ways to get it transferred—but it’s the more holistic vision that Mali talked about with rematriation. I think more about “right relationship,” ability to live your culture. I mean, one of the outcomes of the Penobscot River Restoration was having a sovereign right be fulfilled to fish in a river that’s been polluted for 150 years by my people. You can’t fish in a river in which the fish are contaminated and giving everyone cancer.

So it’s more holistic, getting back to what we were talking about earlier. There are over four million acres of land that are owned or that are in some form of conservation.19 And I mean, I could tick off how many thousands of acres that nations own. And then there’s what Mali spoke to, which is the diaspora that doesn’t have any legal claims, other than traditional forms of ownership that she’s trying to shake up.

CS: So there’s an overlay of contradictory frameworks.

KD: Yes, all of these things are true at once. And I keep saying we have to catch ourselves every step of the way. Everything that we do is so rote: when a landowner approaches us to buy a key parcel, we typically say, “Here’s this opportunity, let’s call the state of Maine and see if they would like to work with us on it.” Now, instead, we can say, “Let’s go first to the Wabanaki Commission on Land and Stewardship to explore this opportunity.” But it’s also being enough in authentic relationships with the Passamaquoddy Tribes that they invite us to be part of supporting their projects.

CS: I have one more question for the Indigenous leaders on this, if you don’t mind. What do you see as the goal? What would you like to see? I know that there are some constraints here. But when you think about what you would like or what your community would like, what are the goals? Or is that even the right question? Mali, what do you think?

MO: I would typically wait to hear Donald or Darren answer.

DS: What I’d like to see is important areas come back to us that have supported the Tribe for thousands and thousands of years and are a major cultural component of our Tribe. Areas like that need to come back to the Tribe. The Tribe needs to access those areas, because we need to fulfill our culture. Because part of our culture has been taken away from us. Over 400 years, our culture has slowly been taken away—and now it’s flowing back.

And one of the good things is, we’re able to access different areas and practice some of our cultural traditions. So the number one goal probably would be to get everything back, but we know that that’s not gonna happen. We don’t want to displace any homeowner or anything, but there’s so much land out there, so many important cultural sites, that would only benefit the Tribe. That’s what I look at.

CS: I’m sorry if I’m being dense with this, but does it matter to you, access versus ownership? It does matter, right?

DS: Yes. When you have ownership, you don’t have somebody watching over your shoulder. But there are situations where access is important, where the ownership isn’t going to change. You have to realize that in this world, we try to find different ways to work around it and to work together.

“Our governance systems use kin terms to denote roles and responsibilities. In our confederacy, there are brother Tribes, sister Tribes, grandfather Tribes, mother Tribes. These are roles and responsibilities, not forms of control over.”

DR: Our reluctance, perhaps, to answer the question in terms of we want x percentage back is because it violates the fact that we make these decisions in concert with each other and with the land trust community. The framework that we have set up—governance—is critical. And one of the things that has been challenging, I think, for our funders at times is that we are modeling a form of interdependence across the Wabanaki Commission and the First Light Learning Journey—the land trust. People want to know who is in charge, who is the final decision-maker—and they don’t ask it in a way where they think that that’s a culturally wrong kind of question. They want accountability, and they should have accountability. All those things.

But the problem is, our accountability is not a vertical system of owners over a thing. If that’s all you’ve ever seen, then that’s all you know to ask for. In terms of accountability, our system is a system of governance that is in relationship, constant relationship with people, and it is interdependent. So it is not one over the other. Our governance systems use kin terms to denote roles and responsibilities. In our confederacy, there are brother Tribes, sister Tribes, grandfather Tribes, mother Tribes. These are roles and responsibilities, not forms of control over.

I think when we try to model interdependence, it looks confusing to the traditional funding and property system frameworks. But we have governance documents. It’s like the Two Row Wampum, the canoe and the boat tying together—we can be separate but interdependent.20 Those sorts of formulations. All of that is a challenge to the property system, the conservation tools that we mentioned before. But we are modeling a form of interdependence that we can’t answer. You talk to individual Tribal citizens—we want to have access and some level of control over all the most important places. Those are easy things to say, but we don’t know how that sorts out, because we’re working in a process way, an interdependent way, that is as valuable as any signed agreement that you could possibly have.

So I think that’s what I would say, and it’s made this work more challenging—where people want final answers. They want to know: Who’s in charge here? Who’s gonna do what? But our process is just a little bit different from that. And I would hope that people who want to support this work can understand that this system, even in its accountability frameworks, is going to look different.

MO: Governance is decision-making power, of course, over the places that are most special and sacred to us. And in most cases, those have been the first things that the state has tried to take away. And this entire conversation has me thinking back to all of the treaty conferences that I’ve read about. And especially, there was one around Arrowsic Island in Southern Maine.21 As the story goes, the men leaders were the only ones that the English would communicate with, so they went and had a treaty conference, and then they all had to go paddle to a different part of the island to talk to the women and to get the actual consent of the rest of the community.

So when it comes to our rivers, or our mountains, or any places of historical significance, I think that we should still have that decision-making priority for our people. And that is beyond just the Tribal nations that are still recognized in Maine to my community also, the Abenaki of Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations—speaking as myself, my community—which is exiled across the border and whose ancestral lands are in Western Maine. I think if we were really doing something in an equitable way, we would be returning to that decision-making priority for all the Wabanaki Nations that are relevant to these lands. That’s holistic, that’s historically accurate, and that is the kind of healing that we’re aiming for.

CS: Do the people that are not in Maine get to be part of the conversation?

MO: No, we don’t, and I don’t want to turn this conversation into being about that. But I do think that alongside the other nations who are here who don’t get invited to the table on the important conversations. I think we should all be invited to the table.

CS: Are there other Tribes in Maine that are not part of this conversation?

MO: No. I think we’re advocating in our movement in Maine for all the Tribes that are federally recognized in Maine to be at the table. I’m saying all members of the confederacy should be at the table. I’m sorry—I think that approaching it from a state border mentality isn’t necessarily accurate.

CS: Thank you so much. One last question for you, Gabriela. What is the role of the Sewall Foundation in all of this? Are you the leading funder organizing other funders?

GA: Sewall takes our commitment to equity very seriously, and for us that means working to be good partners to our Wabanaki communities—and that has to include influencing the philanthropic sector to work beyond ourselves to repair the harm. I guess I would want to start by saying that 0.4 percent of all philanthropic dollars in the US goes to Indigenous communities. So I just want to start from there. But the context is that the philanthropic sector does not support Indigenous communities. It’s appalling. So one of the primary things that Sewall has done over the past four years has been to significantly increase our funding to Wabanaki communities and Tribal governments. It is still very small compared to what it should be within that context.

What I would like the goal of this work to be and Sewall’s participation in it to be is to contribute to culture change that’s rooted into institutions and envelops governance and decision-making—to Mali’s point. I think until we change, culturally, how we understand decision-making, everything will be incremental, and there will be that clunkiness that Darren was talking about. We’re still trying to make Indigenous worldviews fit into institutions that are colonized, and understand things through property and ownership and through transactions. So I think that the most sustainable thing that could happen is for there to be a true culture shift to the relationships, and through some of this work, and through Land Back, and through wealth transfer.

“I think that what we should aspire toward is to truly change the culture, so that we enhance our understanding….Our collective survival is dependent on our not being so culturally stubborn as to not engage and expand our cultural understanding of the world.”

One of the things that the working group has been working on is raising funds, so that those funds will be managed and decision-making will be by Wabanaki people. That, to me, is a really good intermediate step. How can we have a transfer of resources so that decision-making truly is in the hands of Indigenous people and can be made in a way that is culturally appropriate? Because I don’t believe that is how it’s being done. I’d like to think that what Sewall is doing is really helpful, but it’s still a transaction. Mali still had to submit an application. We can say, “Well, now we’re doing three-year grants, so that’s better, and our grants applications are shorter and more streamlined, and we don’t require much reporting and primarily give general operating funds.” Those are all good things and we work to be flexible and learn as we go—but they’re an intermediate step.

I think that what we should aspire toward is to truly change the culture, so that we enhance our understanding. Because, frankly, if we look at what Darren said about the Indigenous leadership and environmental work and climate work—our collective survival is dependent on our not being so culturally stubborn as to not engage and expand our cultural understanding of the world. So I think that we really need to grow: the philanthropic sector needs to become less transactional, and in doing so change our culture so that we can have a different form of decision-making that shifts resources significantly.

CS: Thank you so much. I really appreciate all of you spending time to help me understand so much. I hope that we get to continue the conversation someday. And thank you so much for your work.


  1. “Penobscot River Restoration Project,” Natural Resources Council of Maine, accessed August 31, 2023, www.nrcm.org/programs/waters/penobscot-river-restoration-project/; and “Restoring the Penobscot River,” Stories in Maine, The Nature Conservancy, accessed August 31, 2023, www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/maine/stories-in-maine/restoring-the-penobscot-river/.
  2. “Jay’s Treaty: Primary Documents in American History,” Library of Congress, accessed August 31, 2023, guides.loc.gov/jays-treaty; and “John Jay’s Treaty, 1794–95,” Milestones, 1784–1800, Office of The Historian, United States of America Department of State, accessed August 31, 2023, history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/jay-treaty.
  3. Joseph P. Kalt, Amy Besaw Medford, and Jonathan B. Taylor, Economic and Social Impacts of Restrictions on the Applicability of Federal Indian Policies to the Wabanaki Nations in Maine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, 2022).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, H.R. 5237, 101st Congress (1989–1990); and “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: Facilitating Respectful Return,” National Park Service, accessed August 31, 2023, www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm.
  6. The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Council of Maine, American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation, and Maine Audubon and Trout Unlimited, along with the Penobscot Indian Nation.
  7. Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation (Hermon, ME: Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission, 2015).
  8. “Who We Are,” Wabanaki Alliance, accessed August 31, 2023, wabanakialliance.com/about-us/.
  9. “Summary: H.R. 7919—Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980,” accessed September 5, 2023, www.congress.gov/bill/96th-congress/house-bill/7919.
  10. “An intertribal initiative to protect Wabanaki homelands, knowledge, and future generations,” Bomazeen Land Trust, accessed August 31, 2023, www.bomazeenlandtrust.org/.
  11. Jennifer Morris, “Protecting Nature Through Authentic Partnerships,” The Nature Conservancy, September 8, 2021, www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-insights/perspectives/protecting-nature-authentic-partnership-jennifer-morris/.
  12. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations, accessed September 8, 2023, www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
  13. First Light, firstlightlearningjourney.net/.
  14. “Solidarity in Action: Sharing Equity, Power, and Land for Wabanaki Self-Determination,” panel at the Maine Philanthropy Center Conference, May 30, 2023.
  15. Claudia Sobrevila, The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation: The Natural but Often Forgotten Partners (Washington, DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, May 2008).
  16. Ibid. (Data change: currently, folks are saying 6 percent in terms of Indigenous people, and the 22 percent is sometimes represented as 20 percent.)
  17. “Federal land policy in Maine,” Public Policy in Maine, Ballotpedia, accessed September 5, 2023, ballotpedia.org/Federal_land_policy_in_Maine#Land_and_Water_Conservation_Fund.
  18. Allison Kanoti et al., 2021 Maine Forest Health Highlights (Augusta, ME: Maine Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry, November 15, 2021); and USDA Forest Service, Forests of Maine, 2021 (Madison, WI: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 2022).
  19. The Nature Conservancy in Maine’s Commitment to Collaborating with Indigenous Peoples (Brunswick, ME: The Nature Conservancy in Maine, 2022), 7.
  20. “Two Row Wampum–Gaswéñdah,” Onondaga Nation, People of the Hills, accessed September 5, 2023, www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/two-row-wampum-belt-guswenta/.
  21. “Plymouth Company Records, box 13/3, 1717–1732,” Maine Memory Network, accessed September 12, 2023, www.mainememory.net/record/122971/image/125060.