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From Tribal Representatives to State Legislatures

Native American history of tribal representatives in the Maine Legislature.

From time immemorial, most Indian nations have exchanged visits between knowledgeable tribal members and leaders. The purpose of these exchanges was to assist each nation in establishing and maintaining peaceful relations between the nations. In contemporary international affairs such exchanges are called embassies, or diplomatic exchanges.

When the early European colonies were established on the East Coast, each colony was independent and maintained its own Indian policy and relations with Indian tribes. Massachusetts Bay Colony was established about 1630. Massachusetts eventually claimed larger territory than its current state boundaries, and included much of the present-state of Maine. Some Indian tribes in then-northern Massachusetts sent representatives to Boston to help manage trade, military, and political relations.

During the American Revolutionary War, the Maine tribes provided military support to the Americans. Since the Maine Indian Nations, such as the Passamaquoddy and Penobscots, provided invaluable military aid, Massachusetts continued to accept tribal representatives who advised the state on issues of mutual interest and concern.

When Maine became an independent state in 1820, the Penobscots sent tribal representatives directly to the Maine House of Representatives, where they provided advice to state legislators during the legislative sessions. In 1842, the Passamaquoddy reservations began to send a representative to the Maine House of Representatives.

Before 1866 the Indian representatives were selected in traditional ways within the tribal communities, but after 1866 the Passamaquoddy and Penobscots agreed to hold elections of tribal legislative representatives, which conformed to Maine and U.S. rules and traditions. The Passamaquoddy have two reservations, Indian Township and Pleasant Point, which took turns sending a legislative representative to the Maine House of Representatives.

The tribal legislative representatives were seated in the House chamber with the Maine elected representatives. While not allowed to vote, the tribal legislative representatives addressed the House on Native American issues, and advised and lobbied legislators.

In 1941, however, the Indian legislative representatives were removed from their seats on the House floor, assigned to the gallery, and no longer had the right to address the House. The tribal legislative representatives, however, continued to be paid in the same manner as Maine House members for their attendance and advice.

In 1975, the Maine House restored the tribal legislative representatives to seats on the House floor and returned the privilege to address the House. Tribal legislative representatives are paid out of the legislative budget. In more recent years, tribal legislative representatives are allowed to co-sponsor and introduce legislative bills, and to chair special commissions. Beginning with the 2013-14 Maine legislative session, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians will begin to send a tribal legislative representative to the Maine House with the same privileges as the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy representatives.

The tribal legislative representatives do not have the right to vote in the Maine House. There are no tribal legislative representatives within the Maine Senate. Maine lawyers argue that the tribal representatives cannot vote, since their Indian constituents are already represented by elected representatives from the usual Maine voting districts. The one person one vote rule prohibits dual representation. If the tribes and Maine agreed, the reservation communities could withdraw from voting in the Maine legislative districts and bypass the one vote prohibition. Then the tribally elected legislative representatives could represent their reservation communities, and have the right to vote in the legislature.

The State of Maine negotiated a favorable Indian land claims settlement in 1980, and has been reluctant to recognize tribal sovereignty and government-to-government relations. States are semi-sovereign entities within the United States federal system and can recognize and work with tribal nations on a government-to-government basis within the limitations of federal law. The history of tribal legislative representatives in Maine provides a possible direction for improving tribal-state relations and enhancing democracy that might be useful for all tribal nations and states. States, however, need to recognize tribal government sovereignty as well as tribal members as state citizens.