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Governors and chiefs to meet in annual assembly

VEAZIE, Maine - Tribal leaders and state officials will meet at the Assembly of Governors and Chiefs July 19 to review the past year's accomplishments and set the agenda for the coming year's goals.

The meeting will be hosted by the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and held at the Veazie Salmon Club on the Penobscot River in the Penobscot Nation's homeland.

Chiefs and representatives from the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik and Motahkokmikuk, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Gov. John Baldacci, state legislators, and other interested parties will attend.

The meeting will begin with a ceremony and opening remarks from MITSC Chairman Paul Bisulca, Penobscot, followed by remarks from the five Wabanaki leaders and Baldacci. The morning session will include a ''year in review'' to see what the parties have accomplished on last year's action items, including the Tribal-State Work Group that is studying possible changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, and progress on a proposed tribal college.

Tribal leaders and the governor will hold a private session during lunch, and the afternoon will be devoted to plans and agreements for the next year.

The commission is an intergovernmental entity that was created by the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act in 1980.

The commission essentially fell apart in the late 1990s and early 2000s under the weight of ineffectiveness and contentiousness. But the organization has been revitalized over the past two years, infused with energy from Bisulca and MITSC's Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall, a proactive team intent on setting things right between the tribes and the state.

''John and I walked into an organization that was dysfunctional - everybody accepts that. When I first went before the commission, when they were looking at me to decide if they wanted me or not, I wrote one word on the board: relevant,'' Bisulca told Indian Country Today.

In this case, being relevant means providing services for customers, the tribes and the state, Bisulca said.

''I said MITSC has to be relevant; you have to make it like a business. If we don't produce a service that people want, they'll go somewhere else. We have to know what the tribes need, what the state needs,'' Bisulca said.

The commission's broad mission - to continually review the effectiveness of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the social, economic and legal relationship between the tribes and the state - is flexible enough for the commission to define its work.

Bisulca said he determined that the commission would have more interaction with the tribal leaders and state officials to find out what they need.

''And the other thing I said is when something needs to be done, we're going to do it. We're not going to simply make a recommendation as has been done in the past,'' Bisulca said.

Over the past year, MITSC has provided staff support for both the tribes and state, has lobbied, recruited support from other groups, and brought as much political pressure as possible to bear on the system to get favorable results on the issues.

In another first, the commission secured a $15,000 federal grant to hold a summer school to instruct teachers in teaching the history of Maine's indigenous peoples.

Things also changed with the new governor - Baldacci - Bisulca said.

''Frankly, there were state governors right up to the current governor who figured the Settlement Act was done and there wasn't anything more to do. They didn't want to talk to the Indians. It was a very bad situation. But the current governor is very good, very supportive.''

This year's meeting will again focus on issues and projects, but the overarching goal is a change in attitude, Bisulca said.

''The thing is, we've got to get out of this confrontational approach. We've produced a mentality within the commission where we look at a problem and how we can best produce favorable results to both sides,'' Bisulca said.

A sign of MITSC's success would be less litigation, which serves no one, Bisulca said.

''It costs the state and tribes money and generates a lot of animosity that's hard to get over. So if I can put the attorney general out of business with regards to litigating against the tribe and the tribes against the state, I'll be happy and I will have done what I wanted to do. That's the best case,'' Bisulca said.