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‘Honor’ settlement act by protecting sovereignty

HOULTON, Maine – The leader of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians could not attend the historic Tribal Nations Conference with President Barack Obama; instead she sent him a message.

Due to prior commitments Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander could not attend the Nov. 5 event at the Interior Department, but in a letter sent to the White House, she asked Obama to become an active partner on the tribe’s side in fighting off the state of Maine’s continuing encroachments on Indian tribal sovereignty.

“Yes, we have received money. But, Mr. President, what the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians most need from you as the chief executive of the U.S. is for your government to cast off the political neglect we have experienced for the last 29 years since the signing of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) and instead become a concerned, dependable, and engaged ally as we face assaults on our sovereignty,” Commander wrote.

MICSA was the first, largest, most complex and probably most contentious of the settlement acts among east coast tribal nations. Negotiations between the federal government lasted more than four years and ended with the settlement in 1980. The settlement was supposed to acknowledge the tribal nations’ sovereignty and authority over their internal matters on their lands, create a new relationship with the state, and continue an established trust relationship with the federal government.

“The act was about establishing a new relationship between sovereigns grounded in respect and trust. It was to be a national model, but it failed. The United States has been conspicuously missing as we Native people alone have struggled to have the state of Maine respect the intent of the settlement act,” Commander wrote.

In the three decades since MICSA passed, the state government and courts have eroded tribal sovereignty and blocked tribal efforts at self-determination and economic development. The relationship was so frayed that the Penobscot Indian Nation severed all ties with the state in 2008 after the governor worked during the last hours of the legislative session to block bills that would have benefited tribal nations.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Maliseets waged fierce battles against the state over its placement of Maliseet children in the child welfare system with non-Indian families.

“Without aggressive intervention by our tribal government, we were in danger of losing an entire generation of children. What future do any people have without its children? As we have battled the state of Maine to respect the Indian Child Welfare Act, the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, and our inherent sovereignty given to us by GheChe’Nawais, we have received no legal or political support from the United States which has a trust responsibility to defend the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians from harm. What we have accomplished to defend our right to exist as sovereign has come from our tribe and support from our Wabanaki neighbors,” Commander wrote.

Because of the restrictions imposed by the state and courts and their interpretation of the settlement act, “We’re just not treated the same as other recognized tribes,” Commander told Indian Country Today. She sees a similar situation among many of the “settlement act” tribes in the east, particularly the Narragansett Indian Tribe in Rhode Island.

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“The settlement act tribes seem to be more under the control and thumb of the states.”

Tribal leaders negotiated the settlement act in good faith, she said, because they knew the hardships the tribe had suffered.

“They just saw hope there for better housing, better education and health care. They saw so much hope that things would improve.” But state governments have been resistant to change.

Commander would like to see oversight hearings on MICSA by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“I think the president could look at the issues from the tribes’ point of view and perhaps suggest a way to do that. I think it would have to be a collaborative effort among all the tribes to have an oversight hearing. We’d have to put a lot of pressure on our delegation.”

The congressional delegation is very supportive when it comes to securing funding for the tribes, but they have not been interested in amendments to MICSA, Commander said.

Paul Bisulca, Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission chairman, said the commission fully supports amendments to the settlement and recently led a tribal-state effort to do so, but the legislature’s judiciary commission essentially tore up the recommendations in 2008.

“We’ve always known that MICSA can’t work without strong oversight and that can only come from the federal government. But the commission doesn’t have legal authority beyond making recommendations. We’ve spoken to the congressional delegation, but the congressional delegation does not work for the Indians. The only thing we can practically do is support Brenda’s letter.” The issue will be on the commission’s November meeting agenda and members will be asked to write a supporting letter to the president, he said.

Commander closed her letter to Obama with a reminder about the first treaty the fledgling U.S. executed – the Treaty of Watertown with the Maliseets and Micmacs on July 19, 1776.

“When the nascent U.S. was facing a global superpower in the form of the British Empire, the Maliseet people answered the call joining you in arms to secure your country’s freedom. When we were not citizens and could not vote we came as allies to your defense in subsequent wars. Now, we need this country to come to our defense in justly addressing the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. I ask that you and this country act with honor through an engaged presence and participation in what the United States has committed itself to do.”