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Maine Tribes Withdraw Legislative Reps in Historic Break with State

Two Maine tribes took history into their hands last week when they permanently withdrew their representatives from the Maine legislature.

The Penobscot Indian Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe took history into their hands last week when they permanently withdrew their representatives from the Maine legislature, ending almost two centuries of participation in the state’s political process.

Reading a statement to the House on May 26, Wayne Mitchell and Matthew Dana II, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy representatives, respectively, thanked their House colleagues for their efforts to improve the tribal-state relationship and explained why they could no longer continue working with them.

“The Maine tribes have reached a very critical juncture in our history. As sovereign nations, we must find a better path forward, one that respects our inherent tribal authority and allows for our people to prosper in all areas of their life, and most importantly, one in keeping with our cultural identity and values as Wabanaki people,” Mitchell said.

The tribal nations believed the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) would mark a new era in the tribal-state relationship, “but we find ourselves further and further from self-determination and a relationship that respects our inherent authority as tribal governments, as tribal people.”

The men cited Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Attorney General Janet Mills as central figures in an increasingly contentious tribal-state relationship in recent years. “Just last month, the Governor of Maine issued an executive order stating that the tribes, their people, lands and resources are subjects of the state. We continually find ourselves having to defend basic indigenous rights, such as the right to fish within our territories for our own sustenance,” the men said.

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“Further, with the support of the Attorney General, the Governor has declared his intent to veto important legislation affecting the lives of Native people, specifically the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act and the recommendations of the historic truth and reconciliation commission,” the tribal representatives said.

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Mitchell and Dana said the tribes could no longer participate in a system that fails to recognize them as distinct tribal nations and instead maintains a paternalistic attitude that views the tribes as wards. “Our hope is that one day the state will recognize us for who we are and value the tribes as sovereign partners and engage in a relationship of mutual respect. Until then we simply must decide our own future,” they said.

Then Mitchell and Dana walked out of the State House for the last time as tribal representatives, they said.

Their departure leaves the legislature without Indian representation for the first time since 1823, when the first Penobscot envoy attended, according to the legislature’s reference library. The Passamaquoddy Tribe sent its first representative in 1842. The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians will continue to send its delegate to the legislature. The Aroostook Band of Micmacs does not have a legislative representative. Maine is the only state in the country with tribal representatives. The representatives can do everything that regular members do except vote on pending legislation.

Around 60 legislators followed Mitchell and Dana out of the State House to join approximately 200 tribal supporters in a rally where drummers, singers and dancers celebrated the tribal-state parting of the ways. Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis and Passamaquoddy Chief Fred Moose Moore addressed the crowd.

“We have gone to great lengths to demonstrate good faith and cooperation, only to be lied to,” said Moore, who is chief of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Sipayik.

“To our people today we tell you this: We declare our independence. From here on out, we are a self-governing [nation], focused on a self-determining path,” Francis said. “We have gotten on our knees for the last time.”

Courtesy Donna Loring

Around 200 people rallied in support of the tribes.

Francis told ICTMN later that the tribes have a lot of “nation building” work ahead of them “and we know some of the decisions we’re going to make in the coming months are going to receive pushback [from the state]. We know it’s not going to be easy, so we have to be very systematic in our approach and focus on being what we say we are – independent, self-determining sovereign nations. We cannot control what the state is going to do or how it’s going to react.”

Among other things, the tribes intend to ask Congress to review the 1980 settlement act. Francis said he thinks LePage is already annoyed at the support Penobscot is receiving from the federal government and Congress in its lawsuit against the state, so that request will likely add fuel to the fire. But the tribe’s trust relationship is with the federal government, Francis pointed out. “That’s the only place we can really count on at any level for the protections that we need or we’d be totally alienated from our territory and exterminated from our cultural practices like fishing,” Francis said.

Asked if he thinks the state would come onto the tribe’s land, Francis said, “Well, I hope it doesn’t come to that – that would be a very dark day for the state. My hope is that never happens, that they just respect us in our territory and leave us alone.”

Top Democrats in the Maine House issued a statement urging Mitchell and Dana to reclaim their seats. “The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people will always have a place in the Maine House,” said House Speaker Mark Eves. “I am personally committed to working with them and those they represent to ensure their voices are heard in the House chamber. I hope they will reclaim their seats.”

“The Maine House of Representatives is a better place with the tribal representatives,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe. “All of Maine benefits when their voices, their dedication and their passionate advocacy are part of the Legislature. The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy representatives have rightful spots in the House and will be warmly welcomed whenever they choose to return.”

The rift has been building since the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act – MICSA – passed in 1980. MICSA was the first, largest, most complex and probably most contentious of the settlement acts among east coast tribal nations. Negotiations with the federal government lasted more than four years. In the end the tribal nations gave up their claim to around two-thirds of the state –more than 12 million acres – and settled for several hundreds of thousands of acres and around $81 million.

The settlement act 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. But in the years since MICSA passed, the state government, with the backing of state courts, has interpreted the document in a way that erodes tribal sovereignty and blocks tribal efforts at self-determination and economic development. The 1980 MICSA is now referred to as a restrictive settlement act.

The tribal-state relationship became 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 and had been passed by both chambers of the legislature.

Donna Loring, the Penobscot Nation’s legislative representative when that rupture occurred, welcomed the nations’ recall of their representatives and said she hoped it will be the final break with the state. “I don’t think people realize the historic importance of what happened today,” Loring told ICTMN. “I think of it as an abusive marriage. We’re tired of being abused. We’re outta here. We’re getting divorced.”

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Several reports – the latest published last year by the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission – have said that a deep-seated and enduring anti-Indian racism is the driving force behind the contentious tribal-state relationship.

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Currently, the state and the Penobscot are facing off over a lawsuit the tribe filed against the state over hunting and fishing rights in the Penobscot River. Additionally, the state has sued the U.S Environmental Protection Agency because of its support of Penobscot’s sustenance fishing rights and jurisdiction over the water quality of the water that flows into its territory. The federal government and a group of Congress members have joined the suit backing the Nation. Meanwhile, the Passamaquoddy Tribe is engaged in what has become a spring battle with the state government over the tribe’s right to fish for elvers – those tiny baby American eels that have fetched as much as $2,000 a pound on the world market.

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The intertribal United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), a nonprofit advocacy organization, also supports the Maine tribes, which are among its 26 tribal nation members. Several USET tribes also struggle under restrictive acts that are decades old, USET President Brian Patterson noted in a statement issued regarding the recall of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy representatives.

Courtesy Donna Loring

Wayne Mitchell and Mathew Dana, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy representatives, respectively, walk out of the State House.

“USET believes strongly that every bill enacted for the benefit of tribal nations generally should apply equally to all federally recognized Indian tribes. USET does not stand for second-class sovereignty rights and authority as they are inherently ours as bestowed upon us by our Creator…

“USET asserts that these tribal nations, and Congress, did not intend for these land claim settlements to prevent a handful of tribal nations from taking advantage of beneficial laws meant to improve the health, general welfare, and safety of tribal members from exercising their sovereign authorities and rights equal to that of any other sovereign nations. To the contrary, such an anti-tribal interpretation of their settlement act by the state of Maine ignores the intentions of Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance and other recent legislative efforts to re-build and strengthen tribal nations after years of failed federal Indian policy that sought to assimilate and terminate.

“USET stands in support of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy as they take the necessary steps to determine their own future and do what is best for their respective citizenry.”