The Houlton Band of Maliseets celebrated a historic benchmark this month when its citizen David Slagger, wearing a beautiful hand-beaded vest and holding an eagle feather, was sworn in as the first Maliseet tribal representative to the Maine House of Representatives.
“It was absolutely an historic event,” Slagger said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent the Maliseet people, but I want to emphasize that this is not about me, it’s really about the Maliseet people and that’s the focus I want it to be even though this week was very exciting and the spotlight was on me,” Slagger said.
With his swearing in by Gov. Paul LePaige on January 4, Slagger joins representatives Wayne Mitchell from the Penobscot Indian Nation and Madonna Soctomah from the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
Maine is the only state in the country that includes tribal representatives in its legislatures. The first representative was sent from the Penobscot Nation in 1823, followed by a Passamaquoddy representative in 1842, but historians believe the practice started before the Revolutionary War, according to the Maine government’s website. The Houlton Band of Maliseets gained federal acknowledgment by the U.S. government in 1980 and is part of the larger Maliseet Nation whose members and aboriginal territory spanned both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. In 2010 the Maine legislature agreed to adopt a recommendation by a tribal-state workgroup to seat Maliseet representative in the legislature.
The swearing in ceremony was attended by Slagger’s wife Priscilla, other family members, Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander and members of the tribal council. “Our people are elated and proud to have David Slagger assume the position of Tribal Representative along with the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Representatives who have served since the 19th Century,” Commander said in a statement. “Today’s seating of a Maliseet Tribal Representative represents another positive step toward creating a stronger relationship between the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the State of Maine. We honor our ancestors who made countless sacrifices to advance our tribe to the position it holds today. We also thank our fellow Wabanaki tribes, the Maine Legislature, and the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission for helping to make this happen.”
John Dieffenbacher-Krall, the executive director of the tribal-state commission, congratulated the Maliseet nation on Slagger’s seating in the legislature. “This is another step in the process of achieving jurisdictional and relational parity for all of the tribes in their relationship with the state. Hopefully, the State of Maine will build on this positive action to address other longstanding concerns that the Maliseets and other Wabanaki tribes have with the tribal-state relationship.”
Of the four federally acknowledged Wabanaki nations – the Maliseet, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, only the Micmacs remain without a legislative representative.
Also attending were Joseph Socobasin, tribal chief of the Passamaquoddy at Indian Township, Sakom Reubin Cleaves, the tribal governor of the Passamaquoddy at Sipayik, Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe and other dignitaries including Maine legislators. Lt. Gov. Graydon Nicholas of New Brunswick, a citizen of the Maliseet Tribe in that province, also attended. The group was escorted in to the governor’s office. “My wife was by my side and my tribal chief. I took the oath of office and he gave me the pen he used to sign the executive order and I gave him some sweet grass,” Slagger said. The next day Slagger was escorted to his seat in the House Chamber by a Sergeant-at-Arms where he gave his first speech.
Slagger told ICTMN he plans to focus on the Maine Implementing Act, (MIA), which the state has interpreted to mean that the federally acknowledged Wabanaki nations are on par with municipalities. “It’s had so much (negative) impact on our casino efforts or any other economic development efforts that we try – and we get stonewalled. You have the federal law that says we have the right to self=determination then the MIA that says, ‘You signed something in 1980 that says you’re a municipality and therefore you can’t exercise that right,’” Slagger said. The biggest problem going forward is fear. People are afraid of change. I’m very hopeful that in the coming years this will be addressed because it really prevents us from moving forward.”
Slagger lives with his wife Priscilla (Micmac) and three children in Kenduskeag, which means “a place where the eels gather.” He is a doctoral student at the University of Maine where he is working on a dissertation on the affects of academic assimilation of Native peoples.