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Maine commission launches initiative to heal tribal-state wounds

AUGUSTA, Maine - The chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission is trying to repair a fracture between the Wabanaki tribes and the state.

On June 3, MITSC Chairman Paul Bisulca wrote to Gov. John Baldacci, Senate President Beth Edmonds and House Speaker Glenn Cummings, suggesting a meeting of the Wabanaki chiefs, tribal councils, tribal legislative representatives, legislative leaders and their staff, the governor;s office and the commission.

''The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission has carefully reflected on our meeting of May 21 concerning tribal-state relations and your directive for MITSC to increase diplomatic efforts, pursue the education of decision makers, and undertake timely communication. As we preliminarily discussed, MITSC believes that a joint Wabanaki/State of Maine meeting merits scheduling,'' Bisulca wrote.

The Wabanaki tribes in Maine include the Penobscot Indian Nation, the Passamaquoddy Indians in two communities at Sipayik and Indian Township, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians.

The relationship between the tribes and the state ruptured after a legislative session that saw all attempts to improve life for the tribes shattered. The state thwarted initiatives that would have allowed the Penobscot Indian Nation to operate 100 slot machines, amended the 1980 Maine Implementing Act to affirm tribal sovereignty, and converted trust land into reservation land for Penobscot housing. Then the judiciary committee slashed MITSC's budget by $38,000.

Following the session, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis severed ties with the state, and Chief Brenda Commander of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and Chief Rick Doyle of the Passamaquoddy Indians at Sipayik backed off the state relationship.

Bisulca suggested an agenda for the proposed meeting that would include a discussion of MITSC's purpose and responsibilities, as well as the establishment of a tribal-state process for setting relative financial contributions from the state and the tribes for MITSC operations to be adopted for the 2010 fiscal year. Other suggested items are a review of the Tribal-State Work Group process and how to move forward on its joint recommendations and the unaddressed recommendations of the Wabanaki, and preliminary planning for a 2008/2009 Assembly of Governors and Chiefs.

There has been no ''formal response'' to MITSC's peacemaking effort, but Bisulca said the governor's chief of staff, Mike Mahoney, contacted him by e-mail and scheduled a meeting for June 19 with MITSC Executive Director John Dieffenbacker-Krall and the chiefs of staff of the state Senate and House leaders.

He added that both sides need to start talking to each other again and it's MITSC's job to facilitate that. The commission was formed as part of the 1980 Maine Implementing Act to ''continually review the effectiveness of the Act and the social, economic and legal relationship'' between the tribes and the state.'' Bisulca, a Penobscot, is the commission's first Native chairman.

''We're trying to make that happen, and right now the ball is in the state's court and I hope the executive director's meeting will start things moving.''

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One issue that needs to be resolved is a commitment on the state's part to MITSC's funding, he said.

''We need full-time manning of this commission, not this 20 hours or 25 hours a week stuff or whatever money can be found. There is just too much work we have to do.''

Another area is consultation with the tribes.

''This is all about partnership and working collaboratively. One of the proposed amendments to the Maine Implementing Act was that the state would notify the tribes of any legislative changes that would materially affect the tribes. It's been absent historically and it's absent now and it's very clear that this is a really big problem.''

Ironically, at the end of the session the Legislature passed a resolution endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires governments to seek and receive ''prior informed consent'' before implementing actions that affect indigenous peoples.

But Bisulca said he believes the Legislature does not intend to implement the declaration that it endorsed.

At the core of all the issues is the state's inability so far to understand and embrace the sovereign nature of Indian nations.

''They don't know what it means,'' he said.

But he is certain that the rift between the tribes and state is widening and needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

''If you wait too long, the animosity builds up and it's harder to close it back up again. We need to get on top of it. I just don't see the sense of urgency on the state's part. I don't see it on the Indian side either, but the preponderance of authority is with the state, and with authority comes responsibility, and I was hoping to see more responsibility demonstrated by now.''