From Remorse to Action

From Remorse to Action

First Parish in Portland, Maine, wins Bennett Award for work to support Wabanaki sovereignty.

Jeff Milchen
People demonstrating (protesting) in front of a building

Rally for Clean Drinking Water for Sipayak at the Maine State House on April 11, 2022. Sipayik is one of two Passamaquoddy reservations and has had a longstanding problem with not having clean water.

Courtesy James (Jim) McCarthey


In 2018, First Parish in Portland, Maine, invited Sherri Mitchell, a lawyer and activist for the Wabanaki people—comprising four independent Tribes that span Maine and Canada’s maritime provinces—to speak at its weekly service. Her presentation was not your typical Sunday fare. Mitchell revealed some brutal history of the Portland church, including the story of a former minister who, along with other church leaders, assembled a posse to hunt down and kill Wabanaki people for bounties in the 1700s.

The four Tribes in the Wabanaki Alliance are the Mi’kmaq Nation, Penobscot Nation, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Rather than hanging their heads when confronted by this dismal truth, congregation members began brainstorming potentially restorative actions. For First Parish’s Wabanaki Ally Team that emerged from the painful reckoning, publicly acknowledging the sins was a starting point, but they progressed quickly to allying with Wabanaki groups to back legislation asserting Tribal sovereignty in Maine to correct ongoing injustices. That work soon sparked engagement by other UU congregations, capturing the attention of the Unitarian Universalist Association and earning First Parish a 2022 UUA Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action.

Many other Maine UU congregations are now making action-oriented covenants like, “We commit ourselves to a process of decolonizing, of learning the painful historical truths . . . of becoming allies to the Wabanaki Tribes who are still crying out for justice and self-determination.” Those words were written by Meret Bainbridge, who co-chairs First Parish’s Wabanaki Ally Team and a racial justice group within the Maine UU State Action Network (MUUSAN), a statewide advocacy network anchored in the Unitarian Universalist faith that includes eighteen of twenty-six Maine congregations. Among other activities, MUUSAN and members provide training, guidance, and prompts for Maine UUs to submit letters to public officials and Maine media, advocating for state legislation to establish Wabanaki Tribal sovereignty. MUUSAN, in turn, is part of a coalition supporting the Wabanaki Alliance, a cooperative association of the four Maine Tribes.

Appreciating the importance of such legislation requires some background on the Wabanaki’s unique situation. While other federally recognized Tribes have direct Nation-to-Nation relationships with the federal government that supersede State governments, in Maine they are treated akin to municipalities, subordinate to state laws. So unlike other Tribal governments, the Wabanaki frequently are forced to battle in court to gain rights that Tribes in other states already possess.

As one example of harm imposed by this loss of sovereignty, Maine forbids Tribes from engaging physicians or nurses unless they are Maine-licensed, preventing free visiting medical care and impeding essential care for many low-income communities. In another case, the federal Stafford Act enables Tribes to request and receive federal aid to recover from natural disasters, but the Wabanaki are prohibited from requesting aid directly. This left Indigenous communities without electricity for up to three weeks in winter after a 1989 ice storm.

Like most strong organizing work, First Parish’s impact comes not just from the direct efforts of its congregants, but through inspiring others.

The loss of Tribal sovereignty resulted from the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980— legislation passed in the U.S. Congress—and the (state-level) Maine Implementing Act. The Acts implemented a federal payment of $6.5 million (in today’s dollars) as compensation for lands previously taken from the Tribes. The sum enabled some (not all) Tribes to buy back a small fraction of stolen lands where current owners were willing to sell. But worse than the inadequate compensation, the Implementing Act imposed an unprecedented regression on Indigenous rights by excluding Maine Tribes from federal law that guarantees Tribal sovereignty.

Tribal representatives signed onto this bad bargain in 1980 largely due to two factors: poor legal representation and an imminent presidential election that would replace the sympathetic President Jimmy Carter with Ronald Reagan, who was seen as likely to veto the legislation then under negotiation.

Sherri Mitchell, the Wabanaki attorney who sparked UU engagement, testified to the state legislature in 2020 that, “the righting of historical wrongs has bypassed the state of Maine . . . The provision in the Maine Settlement Act that purposely excludes the Wabanaki from the rights and benefits enjoyed by other Tribes has left us hopelessly disadvantaged and impoverished.”

Wabanaki people believe the Act must be revised to achieve justice, while most state politicians view it as a “done deal” that they are unwilling to revisit. State legislation to correct this denial of sovereignty failed to pass in 2022, but the Wabanaki Alliance, First Parish, and MUUSAN continue working to build public support.

Like most strong organizing work, First Parish’s impact comes not just from the direct efforts of its congregants, but through inspiring others. The UUA Bennett Award citation calls the congregation’s work “a powerful example of how UU communities can engage in both the internal and external work to support Indigenous liberation and sovereignty,” and notes the many other congregations First Parish has inspired to act.

Despite the continued need for legislative action, “correcting the historical record is part of reparations” says Bainbridge. “We hope to inspire UU congregations nationally to become allies to their local Tribes and actively work on decolonizing as a moral obligation growing out of Unitarian Universalist values.”

Note: TheUU Fellowship of La Crosse, Wisconsin, also won a Bennett Award this year for its voter engagement work. Learn moreabout the award and the three runners-up.