Donna Loring has never stopped defending the rights of the Wabanaki

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By Adrienne Perron
Photographed by Dave Dostie
From our November 2021 issue

Wabanaki windows, on Maine radio station WERU, begins with the haunting trill of a wooden flute before Donna Loring’s voice comes in. Wabanaki windowsShe said in a neutral tone. “Today we’ll take a look at some key people in shaping the constitution of Maine, the taking of tribal lands, and what happens when the new state of Maine begins its relationship with the Wabanaki tribes.”

It’s taken from an episode aired in June, the fifth in a series devoted to “Unpacking Sovereignty”, the problem that preoccupies 72-year-old Loring above all else. Loring developed Wabanaki windows 12 years ago and recorded nearly 100 hour-long episodes, most archived online, facilitating conversations with experts on topics related to the four federally recognized Wabanaki tribes of Maine. “Probably the most lasting legacy I will leave is my radio show,” she says. Loring’s legacy, however, extends far beyond the airwaves.

She grew up in the 1950s on Indian Island, the main reserve of the Penobscot Nation, where she remembers tribesmen being fed and clothed thanks to deliveries of surplus food and donations of second-hand clothing. . “We were treated like fools and poor people,” Loring says. “We were told we live on state alms. When you hear a message like this growing up, it sinks in and comes true. From her father and uncle, she heard stories about service in WWII and Korea, and as a child she dreamed of joining the military – not only to follow in their footsteps, but also because it seemed like one of the only ways to leave the island.

She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1966, at the age of 18, and a year later was stationed near Saigon, where she processed casualty reports at a communications center. She was one of only 11,000 women stationed in a wartime combat zone (less than 1,000 of whom were in the Women’s Army Corps). But leaving Indian Island was no escape from prejudice, and cases of discrimination followed Loring into the military and beyond. During basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, she went out to a restaurant with a group of grassroots women, and the staff refused to serve anything but white women. After the war, she attended Maine Criminal Justice Academy, where an instructor ordered her to “send smoke signals” from a barrel fire. When she began to fan the smoke, her instructor asked her what she was communicating. “Sir, I say fuck you, sir!” She replied. Loring firmly believes that the native sense of humor has kept them through “centuries of bullshit”.

Loring in the 1980s, as Police Chief of the Penobscot Nation. Photo courtesy of Donna Loring.

From 1984 to 1990, she served as Chief of Police of the Penobscot Nation (the first female MCJA graduate to become Chief of Police), then five years as the first female Director of Security at Bowdoin College. But his career orientation changed in the 90s after returning to Vietnam for a conference. There, Loring began to recognize uncomfortable parallels between American treatment of Vietnamese and the American colonial mentality towards Native Americans. “When we referred to the Vietnamese during the war, we used words like ‘g ** k’, which meant something like ‘foreigner,’ she said. “There we were in their country, calling them foreigners. Once people are dehumanized, it is not that hard to marginalize them. I perpetrated this on the Vietnamese myself.

In 1997, she accepted a position as Coordinator of Indian Student Affairs and Multicultural Programs at the University of Southern Maine. Then, a year later, she was elected representative of the Penobscot Nation to the Maine legislature, a role she held until 2003. As a non-voting tribal representative, Loring wrote a draft law making Native American studies compulsory in elementary and secondary schools, enacted in 2001. It was also the driving force behind the first “tribal state speech” in 2002, the first time that tribal chiefs of the Maine were addressing the legislature. After being re-elected to this post in 2007, Loring played an important role in passing a joint resolution supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

At first, Loring says, she had “no idea” what she was doing as a lawmaker. She decided in her first year to keep a journal of her struggles, so that those who followed her could use her experiences as a reference. It was only later, as she reread her entries, that she began to see them as the basis of a book. She approached Tilbury House publishers in Maine, who in 2008 published In the shadow of the eagle: a tribal representative in Maine. She has also written numerous opinion pieces and essays as well as an unpublished play on the relationship of the contemporary Wabanaki people with their thousand-year-old creation stories.

playbooks for Donna Loring, "The Chronicles of Glooskape: Creation and the Venetian Basket"
Booklets for Loring’s play, The Chronicles of Glooskape: Creation and the Venetian Basket.

In 2009, the University of New England asked Loring to consider donating his writings, correspondence, and other documents to have an archive in his name. She agreed but declined an honorarium, suggesting instead that the university use the funds to establish a series of lectures dealing with equality and justice, as well as tribal and women’s issues. Today, the Donna M. Loring Lecture Series hosts a keynote speaker each year at the university. “And I’m still alive! Loring laughs.

Last November, Loring stepped down as senior adviser on tribal affairs to Governor Janet Mills, a role she had held since 2019. Mills has done positive things for the Indigenous community, she says, like replacing Columbus Day. by Indigenous Peoples Day. and banning Native American mascots, but Loring considers these fruits handy. For her – and for many others – the overriding issue in state-tribal relations is the issue of tribal sovereignty, about which the Mills administration was at best wary. The conflict is rooted in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, passed by the US Congress to provide reparations for stolen land. The law relegates the status of tribes to something like municipalities within the state, devoid of many of the powers of other federally recognized tribes. Full sovereignty, as currently proposed by the legislature, would restore tribal rights to regulate fishing, hunting and resource management on tribal properties, extend the jurisdiction of tribal courts, give tribes the exclusive right to impose members on tribal lands, and more.

“The state has to start recognizing that we are a sovereign people and treating us like that,” Loring says. “They have to recognize that we are able to run our own affairs and they don’t have to treat us like children.”

Now semi-retired, Loring lives with his wife, Deborah, in Bradley. She records her monthly radio show, works on the production of her play, and writes another book (tentatively titled We stole your land, so get over it). After decades of advocacy on the ground, she is investing even more energy these days in the power of her words to make a difference. “Sometimes my writing influences people and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least I have a chance to help someone make a decision,” she says. “When you write something, your thoughts endure. “

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