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Commission in shuttle diplomacy to heal tribal-state rift

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission has met separately with tribal leaders and the governor in an effort to bring the parties together, but so far the relationship remains severed.

The Penobscot Indian Nation cut all ties with the state last summer after a disastrous legislative session that saw every initiative to benefit the Wabanaki people quashed.

With the exception of the Passamaquoddy community at Indian Township, the Passamaquoddy at Sipayik, the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, and the Houlton Band of Maliseets have also kept their distance from Gov. John Baldacci.

In the latest reconciliation effort, MITSC Chairman Paul Bisulca, Penobscot, and Executive Director John Dieffenbacker-Krall met with tribal chiefs and council members at Penobscot on Indian Island Nov. 20.

The four-hour meeting was heavily attended, but only one of eight agenda items – tribal-state relations – was discussed.

“It was a tough meeting with the Wabanaki chiefs. The first question on the agenda was, what do the tribes want from the state? Many people have different ideas. There was no consensus,” Dieffenbacker-Krall said.

The tribes are looking for significant change, he said.

“They aren’t prepared to come back under the old circumstances. They want a process where the Wabanaki people’s positions are respected. It’s not an ego thing and it doesn’t mean they want to get their way 100 percent of the time. They’re some of the oldest continuous governments in the world. They have inherent sovereignty. They want to be treated that way.”

Dieffenbacker-Krall said the process is frustrating, but MITSC will continue to speak with both parties.

“It’s like shuttle diplomacy. I’m hoping that finally something will emerge where the parties feel it’s worth all their whiles to talk to each other,” he said.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said the chiefs’ meeting was productive.

Commission recommends wide ranging reforms in tribal-state relations
The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission’s annual report recommends broad reforms in its budget process, consultation and education to improve the tribal-state relationship. The report was distributed to Gov. John Baldacci and tribal leaders in November, but as of press time the commission had not received any feedback, said MITSC Executive Director John Dieffenbacker-Krall, who wrote and compiled the report. MITSC is an inter-governmental entity formed in the Maine Implementing Act, the state companion bill to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA). MITSC’s mission is to continually review the effectiveness of the MIA and the “social, economic and legal relationship” between the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Indian Nation, the primary tribes in the act. The report not only reviews MITSC’s activities over the past year, but also includes reports, testimony and other public documents, serving as an important historic record. The opening paragraph of the executive summary of the 94-page report lays out the overarching theme of the past year. “Tribal-state relations, after experiencing a positive two-year trend of improvement, precipitously plummeted in April 2008. Though specific individuals and their actions caused a rupture in tribal-state relations in the early spring of 2008, these developments occurred in the context of a negative longer term trend of unilateralism. Both the State of Maine and the Tribes too often act unilaterally though the State does so from a position of political, legal, and economic advantage while the Tribes revert to unilateral action from exasperation that they cannot resolve their disputes with the State in what they believe to be a just manner,” the report says. The relationship between the tribes and the state fell apart last spring in the aftermath of a legislative session that saw the defeat of four tribal-related bills that would have benefited the tribes. “In order to fix the broken relations, MITSC believes that the signatories (of the settlement act) must return to jointly determining their future,” the report says, offering four recommendations: • Adopt a new budget process for funding MITSC. Last April, the judiciary committee led a successful effort to cut MITSC’s funding. But in September, MITSC Chairman Paul Bisulca announced that the commission would no longer participate in the legislative budget process, because the statutes say that decisions about the commission’s funding and how it is spent must be made on a government-to-government basis on the executive level. MITSC recommends that its funding be determined at the Annual Assembly of Governors and Chiefs when the state governor meets with tribal leaders • Enact the recommendations of the governor’s Tribal-State Work Group. Eight recommendations were presented in a bill to the legislature during the last session would have, among other things, reaffirmed, tribal sovereignty; formally recognized the Maliseets as part of MITSC, exempted tribal governments from the state’s Freedom of Information laws; and required consulting with the tribes before introducing bills that affect them. The bill was stripped to meaninglessness and the tribes refused to endorse it. • Develop a permanent process for orienting new and returning legislators about Indian Claims Settlement Act and its implementing act, the Wabanaki tribes, and tribal-state relations. Overall, legislators are abysmally lacking in education about the indigenous people, who have lived in the region for some 10,000 years and are among the oldest continuing governments in the world. • Accelerate implementation of the law passed in 2001 that requires the teaching of Maine Native American history, culture, governments, economic systems and territories in Maine’s schools. While the report clearly delineates the state’s greater responsibility to take steps to mend the ruptured relationship, Dieffenbacker-Krall told Indian Country Today that the tribes have options other than the executive and legislative branches to move their own case forward. “I think perhaps engaging some other governmental entities help them to even further enhance the moral superiority of their position and engender even more public sympathy for their positions, but at the end of the day, they have to deal with the State of Maine and those parties have to work it out. That’s the message of MITSC.”

“All the tribes were talking about this issue with a unified voice, for a change, and I thought we were able to hash out some issues in terms of where we’re going collectively. There was lot of differing opinions,” Francis said.

Francis said he understands Bisulca’s and Dieffenbacker-Krall’s frustration in trying to repair the damaged relationship between the tribes and the states.

“Paul and JDK tend to look at what’s happened in the last two years and say, how do we get over those things? But we look at the last 200 years and say, well, we had this same conversation in 1930; we had it in 1951 when the state was trying to terminate us and in 1967 when we were finally allowed to vote. We had it during the land claims era when things were very racial and there was a lot of tension. Then there’s the 1997 at Loggerheads report that talks about tribal frustration with the relationship, and we’re still talking about it today,” Francis said.

But MITSC isn’t the problem, he emphasized.

“They have a job to do and I hope we can continue to support them from a distance. But they are participating in a system that doesn’t allow us to be a part of it right now. We have no faith in it,” Francis said.

Tribal membership and the council have fully supported the separation, Francis said.

“Life without the state relationship is less stressful. We’re just going about our lives and moving toward more independence, which we should be doing anyway,” Francis said.

The tribes heard through MITSC that Baldacci offered a cabinet level position to deal with Indian affairs, Francis said, “but we don’t know if there were any conditions, or if it’s something he’s just going to do, so we felt, well, what do we say to that? I think it would help. But I haven’t heard anything about it since.”

The tribes will meet again this month to prepare resolutions “on paper” about their approach to the new legislative session, which began Dec. 3.

“One of the things we’re finding out is if we’re not all together on this issue of tribal-state relations, it’s going to be difficult for one tribe to carry that ball,” Francis said.

The most important initiative destroyed in the last session was a bill that would have amended the 1980 Maine Implementing Act (MIA), a state companion bill to the federal Maine Indians Land Claim Settlement Act. The bill would have restored at least some of the tribal sovereignty intended in the original legislation that has been eroded over the decades by a state-judiciary collaboration.

Baldacci informed the tribes through MITSC that he is willing to sponsor the legislation again this year. Part of the bill would put the Maliseets on equal footing in terms of rights as the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes.

“We’re interested in that,” said Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander. “We’re always hopeful that something might turn around. We try to be positive although the experience we had at the last session was very disheartening and negative. We’ve bounced back again, given some time and we’ll try again. We’re very grateful for the work MITSC does, but we’re still in the same place as we were earlier this year. There has been no outreach to our tribes from the governor’s office at the state level,” Commander said.

David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, confirmed that Baldacci has offered to sponsor the original MIA amendments as recommended by a Tribal-State Work Study group that he appointed. The recommendations were presented last January to the Judiciary Committee, which promptly stripped it of all significant amendments, resulting in the tribes’ refusal to support the bill. Any changes to the MIA require both tribal and state approval.

“We have to review them again to make sure everything’s still applicable,” Farmer said.

Farmer said a meeting between the governor and Bisulca in early November was “cordial.”

“The governor is still working to strengthen the relationship between his administration and the Native American communities in the state. I can also say the relationships aren’t as strong as we’d like them to be,” Farmer said.

Farmer said the Penobscots are “the only ones we’re aware of who have taken such drastic steps. There are varying degrees (of separation from the state) in each of the tribal communities. They act differently among themselves toward the state, I would say.”

“If you look at the relationship with the Passamaquoddy (at Indian Township) and Gov. (William) Nicholas and Gov. Baldacci, that relations is comparatively very strong, but the relationship with the Penobscot Indian Nation is certainly the most strained,” he said.

Nicholas did not return calls seeking comment.

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