Wabanaki Alliance Media & Style Guide

This style guide presents common sense approaches to writing accurately and respectfully regarding Wabanaki people, history, land, and culture. At times, its recommendations may run counter to established journalistic norms, and that is because this style guide purposely represents Indigenous perspective and expertise. The experts consulted for this guide are Wabanaki leaders serving on the Wabanaki Alliance board of directors: Penobscot Ambassador Maulian Bryant, Maliseet Ambassador Osihkiyol Crofton-Macdonald, Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative Aaron Dana, Sipayik citizen Rena Newell, and Mi’kmaq Nation Vice Chief Richard Silliboy.

We’ve also created a pronunciation guide to the names of the Wabanaki Nations. Click here to listen.

1. Name tribes and people correctly

There are four federally recognized tribes in Maine: Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Mi’kmaq Nation, Penobscot Nation, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe. The Passamaquoddy Tribe includes the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk and the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik. Each tribe has its own government structure, history, cultural norms, and distinct identity but they do share many things in common. In this capacity, these tribes can collectively be referred to as the Wabanaki Nations. The Wabanaki Nations in Maine are part of a larger Wabanaki Confederacy that includes tribes located beyond the US northern border and Maine’s western border. A note on capitalization: When referencing Wabanaki Nations as distinct Indigenous Peoples among all federally recognized tribes or the world’s Indigenous Peoples, we advocate capitalizing the entire term.

DO name individual tribes that your story references in the headline and intro, or name the Wabanaki Nations or the Wabanaki Nations in Maine if referencing all four tribes collectively.

DON’T use generic terms like the tribes or Maine’s tribes.

WHY The Wabanaki tribes existed long before Maine was a state, long before the United States was a nation, and long before colonizers landed on these shores. Each of the Wabanaki Nations are independent and distinct, and while they are located within the borders of Maine, they are not possessed by and do not belong to Maine.

DO name Indigenous people according to their specific tribal affiliation. People counted among the population of one of the Wabanaki Nations should be referred to as citizens of their specific tribe. If the story refers to all of the Wabanaki Nations collectively, people can be referred to as citizens of the Wabanaki Nations.

DON’T use generic terms like Native Americans, Native people, or Indigenous people if your story references specific tribes and their citizens.

WHY Citizens of the Wabanaki Nations are proud of their heritage, cultural traditions, and family ties, in the same way citizens of other Nations and states are. The generic terms should be used only when speaking more broadly, as in Indigenous people in the United States, Native people representing tribes in the US and Canada, or Native Americans in the Southwest. Use American Indian or Indian to describe people only if a particular Indigenous person or tribe requests to be referred to or quoted that way.

DO use appropriate titles for government officials. All four Wabanaki Nations elect chiefs. The Passamaquoddy Tribe elects a representative to the Maine Legislature who has committee assignments and can speak on the House floor, but cannot cast floor votes. The Penobscot Nation and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians appoint tribal ambassadors.

DON’T use generic terms like tribal elders when referring to tribal government officials.

WHY Each position reflects the will of the citizens of each tribal nation, and each has its own responsibilities and functions, in the same way that US legislators, governors, and presidents do.

2. Situate Wabanaki-related stories in their broader historical and geographic context

Territorial claims based on repudiated theories of discovery, theft, and broken treaties are a hallmark of tribal-state disputes and should be acknowledged. In addition, current state and federal laws result in the Wabanaki Nations having a different and more restrictive status than the other 570 federally recognized tribes in the US. This substantially impacts how laws are applied here as well as the benefit or harm Wabanaki citizens derive from them. 

DO contrast the unique legal status of the Wabanaki Nations with that of other federally recognized tribes, especially when tribes outside of Maine benefit from new federal laws or protections that don’t apply to Wabanaki Nations due to current state and federal laws.

DON’T assume your audience knows where Wabanaki Nations are located, or how their territorial boundaries came to be what they currently are.

WHY Laws that benefit all of Indian Country except the Wabanaki Nations put everyone who lives within Maine’s borders at a disadvantage. These stories are often underreported. 


DO use maps whenever possible to illustrate the locations of Wabanaki Nations and tribal land, and help your audience understand the historic context of current boundaries.

DON’T ignore stories about federal laws impacting Indian Country simply because they don’t apply in Maine. Often, that is the story.  

WHY Visual perspective helps audiences better understand land use issues, especially when referencing critical water boundaries.


DO recognize that historical and cultural artifacts, art, music, language, and storytelling created by Wabanaki people belong to the Wabanaki people, not to Maine.

DON’T use possessive language that describes anything Indigenous as Maine’s. Don’t describe reclaimed artifacts or remains as being returned to Maine.

WHY Wabanaki history and Maine history are not the same. Conflating them negates Wabanaki agency and incorrectly implies ownership and possession.


3. Acknowledge both available and unavailable data when drawing conclusions

Good data that parses the impact, harms, and benefits to or from Indigenous people are hard to come by, particularly when it comes to data about individual tribes with small populations. Sample sizes that are too small to be counted can effectively erase the informational existence of entire Indigenous communities.

DO use Indigenous-specific data whenever it’s available, and acknowledge whenever it isn’t.

DON’T ignore critical data gaps.

WHY using Indigenous-specific data and calling out data gaps helps highlight the need for better information resources and prevents inaccurate conclusions.


4. Seek out Wabanaki sources and experts

Stories involving Wabanaki issues should always include Wabanaki sources and experts. In addition to the websites of the four Wabanaki Nations linked above, excellent information can also be found here:

5. Conduct a racial equity audit on the quality and quantity of your Wabanaki-related news coverage.

Let your audience know you take these issues seriously and be transparent about how you’re doing.