Maine town supports Maliseet jurisdiction over housing land

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Action requires legislative ratification

HOULTON, Maine - The chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians welcomed an announcement by the Houlton Town Council to release its authority over tribal land in support of the band's autonomy.

''It was very surprising. I was very pleased that the town came to that decision. I do absolutely see it as a support of our tribal sovereignty and I think it's a huge step for the town because we have had our issues,'' said Chief Brenda Commander.

The seven-member town council wrote to Commander July 15 announcing its ''consent to the release of jurisdiction over the 177 acres of band land ... upon which the band's housing development and other community facilities are located.''

The town is calling the 177-acre parcel the ''Houlton Band Territorial Land'' and is distinguishing it from the tribe's other lands that are classified as trust and non-trust lands.

That the town has any jurisdiction whatsoever over the tribe's trust property is a flaw in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which was the first and largest land claim to be settled under the then newly ''discovered'' 1790 Non-Intercourse Act. The state and courts have managed to interpret the act since then in ways that have steadily eroded tribal sovereignty for the Maliseets, the Passamaquoddy Indians and the Penobscot Indian Nation. Maine's other indigenous nation, the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, is not subject to the settlement act.

The town's release of the land means the tribe will no longer have to make payments in lieu of taxes to the town. In turn, the town will not provide municipal services such as road repairs, voter registration, or policing on the released land unless the tribe contracts those services.

Houlton Town Manager Douglas Hazlett also praised the initiative and the tribe.

''We value our relationship with the Maliseets and we want to continue to have a good working relationship with them. The tribe has done a wonderful job in building its solid government and providing services for its members.''

He acknowledged that the town council's initiative is an unusually positive gesture toward a tribal government in a state that has gained a reputation in Indian country for its intransigent opposition to tribal sovereignty.

Asked if he hopes the town will become a model for other governmental entities in Maine, Hazlett said, ''I do hope so.''

The town council asked the tribe to honor two requests: that the tribe's current and future territorial land must be contiguous and that any legislative actions ''recognize not only the rights of the Houlton Band, but also those of the town of Houlton.''

The request dovetails with the tribe's long-range plans.

''We haven't purchased all of our land yet with our acquisition fund. Our goal is to someday have all of our lands contiguous,'' Commander said.

The letter was sent to Gov. John Baldacci, the area's state representative and senator, and the Legislature's judiciary committee, which has oversight of Indian affairs.

The release of jurisdiction does not have the force of law, Commander said.

''What they're saying is if the ... Legislature [revisits] the act in the next legislative session, the town supports the tribe going forward; they won't oppose us. What we want is jurisdictional parity like the Penobscots and the Passamaquoddy.''

The Maliseets worked in concert with the other tribes and the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission on a work group that recommended a set of proposed amendments to the Maine Implementation Act, the state companion to the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act during the last legislative session.

The amendments would have given the Maliseets parity with the other tribes on issues of land and sustenance fishing and hunting rights, as well as official seats on the commission. But the proposals were so mangled by changes wrought by legislators on the judiciary committee that the tribes have virtually severed their relationship with the state.

The version of the bill that was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor contained, for example, a provision slipped in toward the end of the document that said that the Maliseet Band ''specifically consents to and agrees that the state may unilaterally amend without additional consent, agreement or approval from the band the amendments made in this act'' within a certain timeline.

To be enacted, the bill had to be approved by the Maliseets and other tribes. The July 18 deadline passed without the tribes signing off on the bill.

The experience with the Legislature was beyond description, Commander said.

''I think if I could only express how negative and discouraging and disappointing it was at the state level, and coming back home to our land and the town coming back home and saying, 'We all live together and how could something so negative bring a wedge between something the town has worked for and we have too - building bridges together.'

''We've worked very hard on that on both sides, despite our issues, and for a piece of legislation to come along pretty much destroying something we worked for - it was hard on both our sides. We had just finished a huge project together and the town was thinking, 'What will the future bring? What will the tribe do now: will they not be partnering economically with the town anymore?'''

Ironically, one of the things that turned the proposed positive amendments into an unacceptable document was the intervention by Houlton and other area towns ''at the last second of the last hour'' in the legislative process opposing some of the changes. The bill as amended by the Legislature would have required the tribe to consult and negotiate with the towns - a proposed that was entirely unacceptable, Commander said.

''That's not something the tribes do. We don't negotiate with towns. We work with the state and federal government on a government-to-government basis.''

Maliseets reject state, support tribal-state commission

The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians is upbeat despite the last disastrous legislative session, which mangled a proposed bill to grant the tribe parity with other tribes, Chief Brenda Commander told Indian Country Today.

''We're not suffering over this,'' Commander said. ''The fact is our leaders have improved the lives of our people. The state of Maine and the towns of Houlton, Littleton or Caribou haven't contributed to longer life spans for our members or better health services for us.''

The tribe has made great strides despite a lot of opposition.

''Our people have been treated as less than human; and today, in 2008, we're not oppressed. We're very positive, we're proud to be Maliseet and proud of our culture and heritage, and that's going to grow to so many other things.''

She said the state's actions concerning the Maliseets and other tribes are clearly in the record for all to see. The Maliseets have spent a fortune in both money and energy on litigating issues of tribal sovereignty with the state. Now it's time for a break.

''We go into it with so much hope. We're upbeat. We're positive. We put all our issues clearly and honestly on the table, and in the end it all gets squashed every single time. So I think we need a little time off from the state. Our tribe needs a little healing time from the state of Maine.''

Although the tribe won't be participating at the Legislature or with the governor's office, it still supports the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

''We would absolutely like to be a part of MITSC because for years we stood on the sidelines; and we really feel we should be a part of the commission because they discuss issues that could be beneficial to us, and we're going to pursue officially being on MITSC,'' Commander said.

A separate bill to include Maliseet membership on MITSC failed to pass during the last session because of a deadline technicality. A provision to include the tribe was also included in the later bill that failed.

Gov. John Baldacci recently reinstated a $38,000 funding for MITSC that had been cut by the judiciary committee. Commander wrote to the governor in May withdrawing the Maliseets' support until the state reinstated the funding.

''I really hope that MITSC goes in a positive direction and I know that [MITSC Chairman] Paul Bisulca and [MITSC Executive Director] John Dieffenbacher-Krall are doing a wonderful job despite all this controversy. I think they're actually the first MITSC officials who are really trying to make positive changes and bring resolutions,'' Commander said.

MITSC is an intergovernmental entity created by the 1980 Maine Implementing Act, the legislation passed to accompany the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. Its role in part is to continually monitor the effectiveness of the Settlement Act and the social, economic and legal relationship between the state government and the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes, and make recommendations.

Bisulca and Dieffenbacher-Krall have come under criticism from some judiciary committee members for taking an active role in carrying out their mission.

''Some individuals don't like that. They like it to be quiet and just let the state leadership handle these things, but there needs to be a place where the tribes can sit together with the state and discuss our issues. There's no Native American office at the state level or the governor's office,'' she said.

Commander said she never received a response to her letter to the governor in which she requested a meeting with him.

''So I actually don't feel like I should go down to the state unless I get some type of invitation. I think he needs to reach out to our tribe and show some compassion, show our Maliseets that he does care about our community.

''I think I've been respectful in asking for a meeting to sit down and talk about all this. I don't think I asked too much. He has not visited our tribe. We always welcome that. That's important to us.''