MITSC chair’s departure ‘a great loss’

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AUGUSTA, Maine – Citing the state’s unwillingness to honor agreements that were meant to affirm and enhance the Wabanaki nations’ sovereignty, the chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission has declined to serve another term.

“I haven’t resigned,” Paul Bisulca said. “I’m not continuing. My time has expired. I served my tour of duty, and that’s it.”

The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission was created as part of the Maine Implementing Act, the companion legislation to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. MITSC was given a broad mandate to continually review the effectiveness of the MIA and “the social, economic and legal relationship” between the state and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation, and make recommendations.

But the state has blocked most recommendations MITSC has made and instead has used its power and the power of the state courts to diminish tribal sovereignty and self-determination, Bisulca said.

“I had no choice but to leave. I could not honorably pursue a course of action where we were repeatedly stonewalled. The Indians have some problems, but, fundamentally, it’s the state that’s the problem. The state has never understood or has never been willing to give and take in the relationship.”

Bisulca said the state was “all over itself being nice and cooperative” during the settlement negotiations.

“But before the ink dried on the paper, they went back to their old ways. They have not lived up to that agreement and for 30 years the state has stymied all efforts to have this organization function to address those unaddressed issues (and) unintended consequences that everyone knew were going to be problems.”

Bisulca, a Penobscot Indian Nation citizen, is a West Point graduate and a retired lifelong career army officer. He served as the Penobscot legislative representative in the late 1990s, and has served the last four years as MITSC chair, an unpaid volunteer position which he took, “because I think it’s something that’s worthwhile.”

Although he had agreed to continue as chair, a meeting in November with state Attorney General Pat Ende and Judiciary Committee co-chairmen Sen. Larry Bliss and Rep. Charles Priest changed his mind.

“The meeting was not sufficiently productive to convince me that extending my time as chairman would be worthwhile to the settlement signatories whom MITSC serves,” Bisulca wrote to the commission.

One of the biggest difficulties Bisulca and tribal leaders have pointed to is the absence of a negotiating partner.

“Compounding my disappointment with this meeting is the growing difficulty of knowing who is really in charge of Indian relations on the state side with no one seemingly able to deliver solutions to the substantive issues blocking normalization in Indian relations. It also appears that Indian issues are being ‘pushed down’ and are not being considered at the highest levels of leadership,” Bisulca wrote.

Bliss said he would have tried to persuade Bisulca to stay had he known he planned to leave.

“I think Paul Bisulca is an exceptional individual and I’m terribly disappointed that he is no longer the chair of the commission. He has a perspective that other people who have been chair just did not have. I think he is absolutely the best person to be chair of that commission.”

Bisulca’s departure is the latest indictment of the state’s intransigence. A near total collapse in tribal-state relations occurred in 2008 when almost every initiative and legislative proposal that would have unlocked the state’s strangulating grasp on the nations’ sovereignty was trashed by former judiciary committee leaders, included a slate of recommendations that were brought forward by a work group of tribal and state legislators. The breakdown caused the Penobscot Nation to sever its relationship with the state.

MITSC Executive Director John Dieffenbacker-Krall said he is saddened by Bisulca’s leaving.

“He was a fantastic person to work for. He always exhibited the highest integrity and commitment. Paul did whatever was necessary to advance MITSC’s mission from updating the letterhead to the highest level diplomatic meetings with Wabanaki chiefs and heads of the state government. The people of the state of Maine and the citizens of Wabanaki nations don’t know what a great loss this is.”

Tribal leaders also regret Bisulca’s departure.

“He worked really hard at trying to effect some changes and trying to move what seems to be an immovable object. He was always on top of the issues,” Sipayak Passamaquoddy Chief Rick Phillips-Doyle said.

Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander said she was “disappointed and saddened” at the news.

“It’s disappointing to see someone work so hard and still the issues are not resolved. I think it’s left us all wondering where this is all going.”

Bisulca accomplished so many things, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said, pointing to the creation of the Maliseet’s tribal court, the Native American Veteran’s Day, the Wabanaki Bates-Bowdoin-Colby Collaborative that provides university education for Native students and more.

“We didn’t have much luck in the legislative process a few years ago, but one thing I would say to Paul in leaving is not to judge his body of work based on results that relied on others because you have no control over that. He should take pride in the fact that he worked every issue as hard as he could till the last minute. We’re proud of him. We didn’t always agree, but there’s a whole different mindset in the state system about how tribes are dealt with now. They do it in a much more thought out way and it’s because of things Paul did.”