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Donna Loring Hasn’t Stopped Championing Wabanaki Rights

Now technically retired, the longtime tribal-affairs leader is counting on the power of her words to make change.

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

Wabanaki Windows, on Maine’s WERU radio station, begins with the haunting trill of a wooden flute before Donna Loring’s voice comes in. “Welcome to Wabanaki Windows,” she says, her tone matter-of-fact. “Today, we will be looking at a couple of key figures in the framing of the Maine constitution, the taking of tribal lands, and what happens as the new state of Maine begins its relationship with Wabanaki tribes.”

That’s from an episode broadcast in June, the fifth in a series dedicated to “Unpacking Sovereignty,” the issue that occupies the 72-year-old Loring above all others. Loring developed Wabanaki Windows 12 years ago and has recorded nearly 100 hour-long episodes, most archived online, facilitating conversations with experts about subjects related to Maine’s four federally recognized Wabanaki tribes. “Probably the most lasting legacy I will leave is my radio show,” she says. Loring’s legacy, however, extends well beyond the airwaves.

She grew up in the 1950s on Indian Island, the main reservation of the Penobscot Nation, where she remembers tribal members being fed and clothed through surplus-food deliveries and secondhand-clothing donations. “We were treated like imbeciles and paupers,” Loring says. “We were told we were living off handouts from the state. When you hear a message like that growing up, it sinks in and is self-fulfilling.” From her father and uncle, she heard stories about serving in World War II 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, when she was 18, and a year later, she was stationed near Saigon, where she processed casualty reports in a communications center. She was one of only 11,000 women stationed in a combat zone during the war (fewer than 1,000 of whom were in the Women’s Army Corps). But leaving Indian Island wasn’t an escape from prejudice, and instances of discrimination followed Loring into the military and beyond. During basic training at Alabama’s Fort McClellan, she went out to a restaurant with a group of women from the base, and the staff refused serve to all but the white women. After the war, she attended the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, where a drill instructor ordered her to “send smoke signals” from a barrel fire. When she started fanning the smoke, her instructor asked what she was communicating. “Sir, I’m saying f*ck you, sir!” she replied. Loring is a firm believer that Native people’s senses of humor have gotten them through “centuries of bullshit.”

Loring in the ’80s, as police chief of the Penobscot Nation. Photo courtesy of Donna Loring.

From 1984 to 1990, she served as police chief of the Penobscot Nation (the first female MCJA grad to become a police chief), followed by five years as Bowdoin College’s first female director of security. But her professional focus shifted in the ’90s after she returned to Vietnam for a conference. While there, Loring started recognizing uncomfortable parallels between Americans’ treatment of the Vietnamese and the American colonial mindset towards Native Americans. “When we referred to the Vietnamese during the war, we would use words like ‘g**k,’ which meant something like ‘foreigner,’” she says. “There we were in their country, calling them foreigners. Once people are dehumanized, it’s not so hard to marginalize them. I perpetrated that on the Vietnamese myself.”

In 1997, she took a job as the University of Southern Maine’s coordinator of Indian student affairs and multicultural programs. Then, a year later, she was elected as the Penobscot Nation’s representative to the Maine legislature, a role she stayed in until 2003. As a non-voting tribal rep, Loring wrote a bill mandating Native American studies curricula in elementary and secondary schools, signed into law in 2001. She was also the driving force behind the first “state of the tribes address,” in 2002, the first time Maine’s tribal chiefs had ever addressed the legislature. After she was reelected to the role, in 2007, Loring was influential in passing a joint resolution in support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

At first, Loring says, she had “no clue” what she was doing as a legislator. She decided in her first year to journal her struggles, so those who came after her could use her experiences as a reference. Only later, rereading her entries, did she begin to think of them as the basis for a book. She approached Maine’s Tilbury House publishers, which, in 2008, released In the Shadow of the Eagle: A Tribal Representative in Maine. She’s also written numerous op-eds and essays and a yet-unproduced play about contemporary Wabanaki people’s relationship to their millennia-old creation stories.

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

In 2009, the University of New England asked Loring to consider donating her writings, correspondence, and other papers for an archive to be established in her name. She accepted but declined an honorarium, suggesting instead that the university use the funds to establish a lecture series addressing equality and justice, as well as tribal and women’s issues. Today, the Donna M. Loring Lecture Series brings a keynote speaker to the university every year. “And I’m still alive!” Loring laughs.

Last November, Loring stepped down as senior advisor on tribal affairs to Governor Janet Mills, a role she’d served in since 2019. Mills has done positive things for the Native community, she says, such as replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day and banning Native American mascots, but Loring considers these low-hanging fruit. For her — and for plenty of others — the overarching issue in state-and-tribal relations is the matter of tribal sovereignty, about which the Mills administration has been wary at best. The conflict is rooted in the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, passed by the U.S. Congress to allocate reparations for stolen land. The act relegates the status of the tribes to something like municipalities within the state, lacking many of the powers of other federally recognized tribes. Full sovereignty, as currently proposed in the legislature, would restore the tribes’ rights to regulate fishing, hunting, and resource management on tribal properties, expand tribal court jurisdiction, give tribes exclusive rights to tax 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 capable of handling our own affairs and they don’t have to treat us like children.”

Now semiretired, Loring lives with her wife, Deborah, in Bradley. She records her monthly radio show, is working on getting her play produced, and is writing another book (tentatively titled We Stole Your Land So Get Over It). After decades of on-the-ground advocacy, she’s investing even more energy these days into the power of her words to make change. “Sometimes my writings influence people and sometimes they don’t, but I at least have a chance of helping somebody to make some decision,” she says. “When you write something down, your thoughts live on.”

From our special “70 Over 70” feature, profiling dozens Mainers from all walks of life, all of them over 70 years old. Find a few “70 Over 70” stories here on the website, and pick up a copy of our November 2021 issue to read them all!