Maine tribes seek changes to law limiting independence

By Aimee Dolloff -- Bangor (Maine) Daily News

BANGOR, Maine (MCT) - True sovereignty is the goal of Maine's American Indian tribes as they work to change state laws they say restrict their ability to self-govern.

The Tribal-State Work Group, created in 2006 by Gov. John Baldacci to review the Maine Implementing Act and improve tribal-state relations, was slated to report to the Legislature the first of the year, but needs more time to complete revisions. The Maine Implementing Act was passed to put into action the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, is working on an after-deadline bill to extend to Jan. 15 the group's timetable for submitting its potential changes.

The Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe were the only two tribes named in the 1980 settlement. The Maliseets, although federally recognized as tribes, did not have a defined relationship with the state. The Micmacs were not recognized by the U.S. government until 1991. Only federally recognized tribes could benefit from the claims settlement. The Micmacs and Maliseets do not have explicit rights listed in the Maine Implementing Act, but the proposed changes would give them the right to self-govern.

''As the current law stands - and I know the Maliseets really chafe at this - the Maliseets shall not exercise nor enjoy the powers, privileges and immunities of a municipality nor exercise civil or criminal jurisdiction within their lands prior to the enactment of additional legislation specifically authorizing the exercise of those governmental powers,'' John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, quoted from the tribe's draft of existing law versus potential changes.

The proposed changes outline specific powers and rights of the Maliseets.

''They have attempted to enumerate what are those powers that go along with having self-governance [and] they've chosen to list them,'' Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

Another major revision would provide all of the tribes with the ability to operate as sovereign governments, something tribal officials and members said they haven't been able to do since the act was created.

''That's a big deal,'' Dieffenbacher-Krall said recently. ''They said, 'Let's get rid of all these terms that have been so vexing to us.'''

Those terms include what is considered internal tribal matters and defining the tribes as municipalities in terms of funding. Over the years, the tribes have seen the topics they consider to be internal affairs shrink, and some of those functions have become subject to regulation by state and local governments. With the proposed changes, they hope to turn that situation around.

''That's really profound,'' Dieffenbacher-Krall said. ''That's a big difference.''

The settlement act originally was designed to allow tribal officials the freedom to make decisions and to operate in the best interests of the tribe.

When working on potential changes, the individual tribes developed the revisions they wanted to see, with the Penobscots and Passamaquoddys working closely on similar changes.

One of those is to allow the tribes the inherent authority and immunities under the federal law in their respective territories. It also states that they shall have, exercise and enjoy all the rights and privileges, benefits, powers and immunities of any federally recognized sovereign tribe within their respective territory relating to their members, lands and natural resources.

It also would provide the tribes with a venue for resolving disputes outside a courtroom.

Part of the discussion at the group's most recent meeting focused on the wording of a change that states the tribes and their members would only be subject to state law as it's outlined in the act.

The wording previously was turned around, stating that the tribes are subject to state law in all instances, except as provided in the act.

''There was a fair amount of discussion about that,'' Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

The final details and revisions will be ironed out during the commission's meeting from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 11, at a location in Augusta that is yet to be determined.

Copyright (c) 2007, Bangor Daily News, Maine. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.