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Maine governor rejects tribal sovereignty

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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine - Maine's tribes are all bracing for a drawn-out fight to protect their sovereignty, leaders said after a long but inconclusive meeting with Maine Gov. Angus King.

King firmly resisted Indian claims to sovereignty in a private meeting with leaders of five tribal governments at the annual Assembly of Governors, Chiefs and Tribal Representatives.

The assembly, in the bleak near-winter of Maine's far north, coincided with a session of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission under the shadow of a paper-industry legal ploy that threatens three tribal governors with one-year jail terms.

"The meeting went back and forth," said Billy Phillips Jr., chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians and host. "But, we kept hearing 'Settlement Act of 1980,' 'Settlement Act of 1980.' Angus King wasn't going to budge."

King was citing the congressional act which extinguished Indian land claims in Maine and gave federal recognition to Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes. Three large paper companies claim the act makes the tribes subject to state law and are demanding free access to tribal records. The governments of the Penobscots and two Passamaquoddy reservations are resisting state jurisdiction over what they consider internal tribal matters.

The suit produced a judge's ruling of contempt, threatening a one-year jail sentence for Richard M. Doyle of the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation, Richard Stevens of the Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation, and Barry Dana, newly elected governor of the Penobscot Nation.

All three came a day early with tribal delegations to meet with leaders of the Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and coordinate strategy.

Although tribes avoided linking Gov. King to the suit, King insisted inside and out of the private meeting that the 1980 act placed unique limits on tribal sovereignty in Maine. "When the act was passed there was great concern not to set up states within a state," he said in an interview.

King is considered one of the most popular politicians in Maine, winning re-election in 1998 as an Independent with the largest margin in state history. He chatted with tribal delegations, calling himself "an amateur anthropologist." In the public meeting, he emphasized common ground on bills to teach tribal history in public schools and to eliminate "offensive place names."

Donna Loring, the Penobscot Nation's non-voting delegate to the Maine Legislature, said she saw a glimmer of hope in King's willingness to have aides meet with the tribes on the environmental issue that sparked the current dispute.

The tribes are fighting Maine's request to take over control of water-discharge permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They want the EPA to keep jurisdiction over the rivers that are vitally important to tribal culture.

But Gov. King stood by his petition for state control of the waters, and gave no ground on his reading of the Settlement Act. He rejected a resolution adopted at the recent National Congress of American Indians, supporting Maine tribal sovereignty. "It ignores the fact that the fundamentals of federal Indian law don't apply here," he said.

His position draws strong disagreement from the tribes.

Mark Chavaree, Penobscot Nation attorney and a member of the Tribal-State Commission, argued in a position paper that tribal sovereignty was never extinguished, even during 150 years of illegal state control.

Maine tribes were under the tutelage of state Indian agents as late as the 1970s. Congress meant basic federal Indian common law to apply to Maine tribes, he said, quoting the Senate committee report on the 1980 bill.

But, he added, "Appreciation of the (Penobscot) Nation as an Indian tribe is sorely lacking at all levels of the state, including its court system."

The problem was compounded, many critics say, by the hasty negotiation of the 1980 Act.

"They were in a hurry to get it done while Carter was still president," said Penobscot Gov. Dana, because they feared the Reagan Administration would oppose the deal.

The commission itself was set up by the act as a forum to resolve disputes, but several members noted it was left out of the EPA dispute leading to the paper company lawsuit. "It was bigger than we could handle," confessed Commission Chairman Cushman D. Anthony.

Phillips observed that each of the Maine tribes has a different background which adds to the complexities.

Unlike the others, the bulk of the Micmac tribe lived in 28 bands across the Canadian border, he said. Phillips argued that regardless of the interpretation of the 1980 Settlement Act, the state-enacted Implementing Act, a separate Maine statute, does not apply to his tribe. The Micmacs received federal recognition separately in 1991, Phillips said. "We never agreed to the Implementing Act," he said.

"It's a good thing that Gov. King only has two more years in office," Phillips said. "I'm looking forward to the person who comes after him."

In spite of the deep disagreements, the gathering was a showcase for Micmac hospitality. The Aroostook band, with 1,185 enrolled members, has no land base, but it acquired non-trust surplus property when nearby Loring Air Force Base closed. During the week of the meeting, the band celebrated groundbreaking for a new cultural and educational center. The $900,000 building also will house a museum and library. Its architecture includes 14 exposed beams representing the poles of the traditional Micmac shelter. In the front yard, 28 stones will mark the bands of the Micmac and the number of stones used in the sweat lodge.