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Mixed Reviews on United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ Progress

Ask Donna Loring if the Maine legislature’s endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has helped the Wabanaki people and she says, “Ha! You have to ask? You know the answer to that.”

When Loring, the former Penobscot Nation representative to the Maine legislature, entered a legislative resolution to adopt the Declaration, she didn’t expect it to pass. But on April 15, 2008, members of the Maine House and Senate voted unanimously without discussion or debate to support the resolution.

“That was not my intention!” Loring told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I expected them to turn it down because of all the stuff that was going on (in the legislature). We didn’t get anything that we had worked on that year and they (the legislators) were pretty nasty about things.” Some legislators were very supportive of the tribes, but didn’t have the political will to make the changes that were needed, Loring said.

The year 2008 was indeed a contentious one for tribal-state relations. The legislature had disemboweled amendments to the implementing act of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which would have reiterated the sovereignty of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseets and Micmac tribes. It slashed the Maine Indian-Tribal State Commission’s budget by $40,000 and stopped a bill to convert 700 acres of Penobscot trust land into reservation land for tribal housing saying the Penobscots might use the land for gaming – an illogical fear since the Penobscots have never been allowed to offer anything more than bingo. A few weeks after the legislature endorsed the Declaration, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis took the unprecedented step of severing relations with the state after then Gov. John Baldacci thwarted a bill approved by a legislative supermajority that would have allowed the tribe to operate slot machines at its bingo facility on Indian Island.

“I was very frustrated,” Loring said. “So I put that Declaration resolution in because I really wanted the legislators’ true colors to come out. I wanted to see a debate on the floor. I wanted to see someone say, ‘No, we shouldn’t adopt this.’ I wanted to hold a mirror up to them and say, ‘Hey, look, this is what’s going on in the world globally. I wanted them to have some kind of consciousness about how they treat Native people in this state.”

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Instead, Loring got the unanimous vote without a peep of debate. But nothing has changed for Native people since then, Loring says. “The adoption of the resolution has had absolutely no impact on anything. When you look even at what happened this year in the gambling industry – everybody and his brother have gambling rights in this state now except for the tribes. They (the legislature) just approved gambling for the veterans organizations. When it comes to economic equality, we haven’t reached that mark; we’re not even close,” Loring said.

The UN Declaration establishes “the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being” of the world’s 370 Indigenous Peoples. The U.N. General Assembly adopted it on September 13, 2007, with 143 nation states voting yes, four voting no, 11 abstaining and 34 absents. Since then all four negative voting states have reversed their no votes – Australia in 2009, and New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. in 2010.

Several tribal nations have officially adopted the Declaration, including the Gila River Tribe of Arizona, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and most recently the Pit River Tribe of Northern California. “This will provide a new framework for relations between states and Indigenous Peoples based on affirming recognition of minimum human rights standards for us as Indigenous Peoples,” Pit River Tribal Chairman Juan Venegas said.

That’s exactly the kind of action Indigenous Peoples and nations here and globally are taking in order to make the Declaration an effective tool for tribal sovereignty and self determination, said Tonya Gonnella Frichner, former North American Regional Representative to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, president-founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, and a citizen of the Onondaga Nation and an attorney.

“What I’m seeing is more and more indigenous communities are adopting it to apply to their everyday lives and in particular with their relationships with governments, especially regarding lands and resources, extraction industries,” Gonnella Frichner said. “Also extremely important is the protection of our intellectual property. The Declaration is a document that can just sit there. We’re the ones that have to breathe life into it and make it work.”