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Doctoral student appointed to first Maliseet tribal representative seat

David Slagger (center) waits to sign his name to make his appointment official as Gov. Paul LePage signs his own name. Slagger's wife, Priscilla (from left), tribal chief Brenda Commander and Wayne Mitchell, Penobscot Nation representative, also attended the swearing-in ceremony at the State House on Jan. 4.
Beth Kevit
David Slagger (center) waits to sign his name to make his appointment official as Gov. Paul LePage signs his own name. Slagger's wife, Priscilla (from left), tribal chief Brenda Commander and Wayne Mitchell, Penobscot Nation representative, also attended the swearing-in ceremony at the State House on Jan. 4.

AUGUSTA — Standing in the governor’s cabinet room in the Maine State House on Jan. 4, David Slagger set aside his golden eagle feather and strip of braided sweet grass to sign his name and become the first Maliseet tribal representative in state legislative history.

He presented Gov. Paul LePage with a bundle of sweet grass after the governor led him through the swearing-in ceremony, and Slagger discussed the personal benefit of those items later, saying he brought them along because of their “positive energy.”

Minutes after the brief ceremony ended, Slagger grinned as Brenda Commander, tribal chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, pinned his blue legislative name tag to his vest.

“It’s official,” he said.

Maine is unique in the nation for its tribal representative positions. Tribal representatives can propose legislation with a co-sponsor and serve on committees, but they cannot vote on legislation. Since tribal members live throughout the state, they are already represented by elected legislators. Allowing a tribal representative to vote in their interest would result in an imbalance of representation.

The legislature has seen tribal representatives from the Penobscot Nation since 1823 and from the Passamaquoddy Tribe since 1842. Then and now, representatives are chosen through consensus in their tribes.

Maine is home to five federally recognized tribes. In addition to the Penobscots, Maliseets and two branches of Passamaquoddies, there is the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, which so far has not had a tribal representative in the Legislature.

“He really wants to be involved with this at the state level,” Commander said of Slagger after the ceremony. “He has been interested in the position, I think, for some time.”

Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot tribal representative, and Madonna Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative, both attended the swearing-in ceremony. Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, also attended to congratulate Slagger.

“I was pleased to witness this historic day for the Maliseet Tribe and for all Maine people,” Cain was quoted as saying in a news release from the House Democrats welcoming Slagger. “I’ve known David for years through his hard work as a doctoral candidate at the University of Maine. He brings an important perspective to Augusta and will serve the Maliseet people well.”

Commander cited Slagger’s educational background as a key factor for his selection. Slagger is a double graduate from the University of Maine, and he listed his undergraduate degree in university studies and Master’s degree in Wabanaki studies as achievements he believes led him to the State House. Slagger is beginning work on his Ph.D. on the effects of academic assimilation on Native people this semester at UMaine.

The appointment lasts for one year, and in a conversation with The Maine Campus in November 2011, Slagger discussed legislation he hopes to introduce that would protect the name and culture of Maine’s tribes by making it illegal to impersonate a Native American.

He also talked about legislation passed in 2001 that required Maine schools to teach students about the state’s tribal cultures and history. That was a step in the right direction, Slagger said, and he hoped to continue those efforts to amplify the voices of tribal members in Maine.

Commander expects to have his ear often, saying the tribal council will influence Slagger’s actions in the Legislature.

“We’re going to meet with him to discuss strategies,” she said.

Shortly after the group drifted out of the chambers, Slagger found his way to his desk on the House floor, ready to begin.