Even if history isn’t your strong suit, there is one point arguably essential to being a University of Maine student — we are on Penobscot Nation territory. This fact is too often forgotten.
The campus is located on Marsh Island as a land-grant university — the only land-grant university in the whole state. Our campus was built on federally controlled land, granted to states by the Morrill Act of 1862 for the purpose of teaching subjects such as agriculture, science and engineering.
UMaine is making progress toward acknowledging Maine-based tribes. Native American Heritage Month wraps up this November, but the campus hosted several events, from educational discussions and plays, to the first raising of the Penobscot Nation flag in front of Fogler Library. In 2016, the Wabanaki Center Student Lounge was established in Corbett Hall 210 as a gathering space for students.
Representation is important for affirming identity and cultivating a sense of belonging. Having the Penobscot Nation flag on campus is a relatively small effort that sends a meaningful message to our hosts. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Social Issues explored the effects of media representations for Native Americans, and the study is bleak.
Representation at large of Native people is either strictly in historical settings, erasing modern-day identities or depict only negative images of poverty, addiction and little formal education. The study further highlights that “exposure to common media portrayals has been shown to have a harmful impact on Native American high school students’ feelings about themselves, their community and their academic possibilities.” Because many Americans have no interaction with Native people outside of harmful media, it’s especially important for places like UMaine to make increased efforts toward breaking down stereotypes and celebrating accurate Native identities.
Think of graduation ceremonies, and the pride that comes with celebrating the attainment of a degree. Every year, the American flag and State of Maine flag are on display — a small detail compared to the bigger buzz of graduation robes, families cheering and speeches. While a good majority of UMaine students are American, they are not the only ones sharing the stage. Wabanaki students participate in nearly every graduation commencement, but the display of their nation flags hasn’t been a permanent feature. During the 215th commencement, the Penobscot Nation flag stood on stage prior to the other flags — though only as an honor for Donna Loring, a council member of the Penobscot Nation. With a stage so large, there is no reason to omit tribal flags alongside the others.
The Penobscot Nation flag should be a permanent fixture on this campus, not limited to a single month. Being a native person doesn’t stop when the calendar rolls over to December. The flag’s presence won’t be a panacea for transgressions of centuries past, nor the present day injustices that Native Americans are still grappling with alongside their day-to-day lives. However, it will highlight a willingness of the state of Maine to support tribes. It will be one hopeful step of many more to come, toward fostering a better relationship between the tribes, the state of Maine and the United States.
We are guests on historically stolen land, and it’s time for the university to make that leap of faith. Alongside the Penobscot Nation flag, the administration should invite the flags of all Wabanaki tribes to pitch their flags as well. In a time when towns all over Maine and the country are pushing to eradicate damaging stereotypes about Native people, we can make a statement here on campus by doing something as simple, and as powerful, as raising a flag.