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NCAI cancels Maine meeting in solidarity with Wabanaki tribes

Resolution urges state to support tribal authority

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - The National Conference of American Indians has dropped out of a scheduled joint meeting in Maine with the National Conference of State Legislatures in solidarity with Wabanaki tribal leaders, and has issued a resolution urging the state of Maine to support tribal authority.

Wabanaki leaders recently backed off from their relationship with the state, disenchanted by a disastrous legislative session that saw every attempt to improve the lives of the Wabanaki peoples squashed.

Nevertheless, the leaders felt the tribes should have been invited to a NCAI-NCSL meeting scheduled to take place in Augusta June 19 - 21, with a focus on tribal-state relations.

The two organizations have been working together for five years to promote intergovernmental cooperation between states and tribes through a State-Tribal Relations Project.

The project includes a 12-member advisory council of state legislators and tribal leaders from across the country. The council meets twice a year to provide direction for all project activities and to discuss steps and models that might facilitate more collaborative relationships.

The NCAI Web site asserts that tribal leaders are part of the equation in moving the agenda forward: ;'Two national meetings per year bring together state legislators and staff, tribal leaders and staff, and other interested parties. These meetings identify ways in which intergovernmental cooperation can be beneficial to both states and tribes and provide a forum in which discussions can begin.''

But the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs were not invited until it was too late, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said.

Francis said he heard about the meeting only recently.

''I didn't know anything about it. I asked the other chiefs and they didn't know about it. So we immediately contacted NCAI and said, 'Why weren't the tribes invited?'''

The tribes finally were invited ''at the 11th hour and after it was known that we had contacted NCAI,'' Francis said. The group wanted to visit the reservations during the meeting, but at that point, they were told it was ''inappropriate.''

Francis attended NCAI's mid-year conference in Reno June 2 - 4, in part seeking a resolution supporting the Wabanaki tribes' efforts to reassert their inherent sovereignty after almost three decades of state and court actions that have virtually stripped the tribes of self-determination and autonomy over internal tribal affairs.

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During the last legislative session, four Indian-related bills were defeated, including proposals for 100 slot machines on Indian Island and for trust land for housing, and to amend the Maine Implementing Act - a state bill to put into action the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which was supposed to affirm and support tribal sovereignty. The defeat of the amendments came after almost two years of work by a tribal-state work group.

Francis said he met with NCAI leadership at the mid-year conference.

''They agreed not to come to Maine. They didn't realize the depth of the issues here, but when they saw there are so many issues in Maine, they weren't comfortable coming here also at the objection of the tribes. They were really supportive of the tribes as NCAI members and we were very appreciative of that.''

NCAI passed a resolution that ''strongly'' urges Maine's governor and Legislature to ''recognize the governmental authority of the Wabanaki tribes and to support amendments to the Maine Implementing Act that will protect the authority of the Wabanaki tribes to govern their reservations in a manner similar to other federally recognized tribes.''

Deborah Simpson, a Democratic representative in the state Legislature who co-chairs both the judiciary committee and the NCSL's tribal-state advisory committee, said the NCAI-NCSL meeting has been postponed and will be rescheduled.

''It's unfortunate that people felt they were not informed and respected. Certainly, that was nobody's intention. I think it was just about not having the best communication,'' she said.

There will be a meeting in Augusta at the same time the joint meeting was to have taken place, but it will be solely for members of the judiciary committee and other legislators with some technical help from the NCSL.

''Hopefully, they'll bring examples of where issues with tribes have broken down and what they've tried to bring it back around. I think there were a lot of hard feelings on all sides at the end of the session and I think we should have a conversation among ourselves about how we might have done things better.''

The end of the session was difficult, with legislators running out of time to work a number of important issues, Simpson said.

''It was sad to see at the end that we didn't make progress, but at least we have an experience that can help inform us how to do things better in the future. That's my hope.''

Simpson's ''heart is in the right place,'' Francis said. ''I do think she wants to be supportive and she tries to be supportive, but it's hard for them to understand the whole sovereignty issue and why we're so concerned about it.''

He noted that sovereignty is an issue of tribal existence.

''Really, for us it's of the utmost importance. We pursue economic development stuff and all that, because it's a tool, but the sovereignty issue is the one that threatens our tribe the most, and they don't get it. If tribal sovereignty is weaned away from us, how do we recover from that as a people? If it gets to not practicing our culture, speaking our language, then you're just part of everyday Maine. There's no more Penobscot Tribe.''