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Highlighting Wabanaki Women in History, by Jillian Kerr

Throughout history, Wabanaki women have worked hard to provide for their families. Europeans could not believe the amount of work Native women did in comparison to European women. Native women did what Europeans called “men’s work” but from the Native perspective, women’s roles reflected their own cultural significance of reciprocity, balance and autonomy. Therefore, there was more gender equity among Natives prior to colonization ( 

 At the time of European contact, Native women had more authority and independence than European women of the time. Native women managed the internal operations of the community and the family clan was descended from women. Women usually owned the family’s housing and household goods, engaged in agricultural food production and food gathering, and raised the children. Family connections, extended family and clan bound people together within a family structure. Lineage was central to determining status and responsibilities. Since women’s activities were central to the welfare of the community, women held important political, social, and economic power but were not very visible to outsiders. Men were mainly responsible for hunting and warfare and were generally the ones who interacted with outsiders, making them more visible due to their public roles. The men of the tribe were the ones who communicated with outsiders.

When exploring Wabanaki women throughout history, many things come to mind but it is the qualities of strength, tenacity, wisdom, and leadership that stand out. Passamaquoddy women Phyllis Sabattus, Pauline N. Stevens, Rita M. Ranco, and Delia Mitchell embodied those qualities. The actions that these women took in 1964 led to one of Maine’s most significant legal battles resulting in the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (BDN: October 8, 2005). 

William Plaisted, a non-Native man, held a 999-year lease within the Indian Township reservation (People of the First Light Encounters: Allies and Adversaries, March 2016). In February of 1964, Plaisted “won” a parcel of land at Indian Township in a poker game. The land was adjacent to another non-Native man’s land. Later that year, Plaisted began preparations to build a road through his property and the adjacent property across an area being used as a garden by tribal member George Stevens. The site of the dispute is known as “the Strip'' in Indian Township and is a portion of the Passamaquoddy reservation on U.S. route 1 near Princeton. The Passamaquoddy claimed the land belonged to them while Plaisted also claimed ownership of the land. Plaisted wanted to build a road near tourist cabins at the disputed site. After a council meeting the Passamaquoddy decided to use a non-violent protest to block construction. 

This group of protesters included Phyllis Sabattus, Pauline N. Stevens, Rita M. Ranco, and Delia Mitchell. These women sat on a gravel pile meant to build part of the road. The women were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after refusing to move from the pile when told to do so by the local police and the sheriff (BDN: May 21, 1964). The charges of disorderly conduct against the four women were later dropped. 

During the process of defending the women, the Passamaquoddy found several important historical documents that suggested large areas of Passamaquoddy land had been taken from the tribe illegally since the late 1700s. This action was part of a growing awareness and resistance that led to the federal recognition of the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Maliseet tribes in Maine, and then to the Maine Indian Land Claims case and the resulting settlement. Phyllis Sabattus, Pauline N. Stevens, Rita M. Ranco, and Delia Mitchell were leaders in a movement to overcome irreparable loss and protect Wabanaki culture and sovereignty for future generations. 



Bangor Daily News: May 21, 1984

Bangor Daily News: October 8, 2005

People of the First Light Encounters: Allies and Adversaries, March 2016


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