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Penobscot Chief Francis: State Police ‘Stepped on Our Sovereignty’ in Bingo Bus Raid

A spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety says members of the state police did not raid the Penobscot Indian Nation’s sovereign territory when they arrived without tribal permission on Indian Island and began inspecting the buses that bring bingo players to the nation’s bingo hall. But tribal leaders are outraged by the intrusion and say the unauthorized visit was a serious violation of the nation’s sovereignty.

State police troopers in a disputed number of vehicles arrived unannounced on Indian Island on Saturday, September 10, around 10 a.m., boarded the buses that bring bingo patrons to the nation’s reservation, and began poking around in the patrons’ personal items and demanding the bus drivers open compartments on the bus so they could inspect all areas. They did not have a warrant and they had not consulted with the tribal police before trespassing on tribal land, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said.

The raid stirred fear among the nation’s citizens and bingo patrons and caused a financial hit on its bingo operation, which has already been decimated by the non-Indian owned commercial Hollywood Slots Casino in nearby Bangor. “People were upset, our bingo started late, we lost a lot of money, but beyond that our concern is they stepped on the tribe’s sovereignty,” Francis said. Francis, who was away at the time, said he was told that seven state police vehicles conducted the raid.

The state police were told to leave several times by the nation’s police Chief Robert Bryant, legal counsel Mark Chaveree, and State Representative Wayne Mitchell. But they refused to go for several hours, Francis said. “They finally got a hold of the Commissioner of Public Safety and the governor’s office and the colonel of the state police and were told to go, but by then it was too late,” Francis said. Francis said the police issued 12 citations for such things as broken taillights and logbook violations.

The state police have no authority to come onto the reservation, let alone in pursuit of traffic violations, Francis said. “There are some major crimes where they have to be involved – homicide, for example – and we do work in partnership with them. But it was an obscene thing that they felt they can put boots on the ground here and do whatever they want in total disregard of tribal authority and our own public safety department,” Francis said.

Some of the bingo patrons left, Francis said. The state police didn’t just remain at the bingo hall, but drove through the neighborhoods around the island, prompting residents to call Francis to ask why the state police were there. And when they left the island, they parked across the bridge, creating a perception that something was wrong. “We’ve already heard from some customers that they’re not coming back or that they heard the police were here for smuggling or gaming violations. The state police made it clear they weren’t here about anything to do with our bingo operation, but that’s what people are assuming and saying that’s why we’re getting raided,” Francis said.

Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland said the state police entry onto Indian Island was “not a raid. It was an inspection of buses.” Asked who authorized the inspection of buses on tribal land, McCausland said, “The state police have a Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit whose sole purpose is to inspect the commercial vehicles in the state and the operators who drive them to make sure the equipment is up to par and that the drivers are doing what they’re suppose to and the vehicles are in sound mechanical shape. It was the buses that were the subject of the inspection.” McCausland said only three state troopers and vehicles entered the reservation.

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When pressed about who authorized the state police to enter the nation’s reservation without notifying the tribal police, McCausland deferred the answer. “Our commissioner and chief of state police are going to meet with tribal authorities next Tuesday and I assume that question will come up and I’ll let them answer that before I answer it,” he said.

Francis said whoever authorized the raid “needs to be held accountable, because the tribe is willing and able to pursue avenues both legally and within its own rights in terms of determining who can and who can’t come here and we will do all we can to ensure we’re protected from this kind of action.”

He said he spoke briefly to Gov. Paul LePage, who was also out of state when the incident occurred, and believed that the governor, State Police Colonel Robert Williams and Public Safety Commissioner John Morris knew nothing about the raid before it happened. “They’ve reached out and set a meeting with us next week and they’ve expressed their sincere apologies and said they want to ensure it never happens again,” Francis said.

Ironically, just weeks before the raid LePage signed an executive order “Recognizing the Special Relationship between the State of Maine and the Sovereign Native American Tribes Located in the State of Maine” that acknowledges “the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, and the Houlton Band of Maliseets are sovereign nations in their own right.” The far-reaching resolution orders every state agency and department to recognize the relationship between the sovereigns, provides for tribes’ to have “meaningful and timely input” into legislation, rules and policies that affect their communities; and establishes a method for notifying state employees of the executive order. It also establishes a “tribal liaison” in each department and agency and asks the agencies and departments “to partner with the tribes to utilize existing resources to provide services.”

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokesperson, said the governor is “definitely concerned” over the incident on Indian Island, “Obviously, through the executive order and his actions so far he does have a desire to build on the relationship with the tribes in our state and will continue to do so and hopefully this is something we can all learn from and build on the foundation that the governor has worked so hard to establish so far,” Bennett said.

Francis said he hated to be “conspiracy-minded,” but hoped the incident wasn’t veiling a larger issue over jurisdiction. The nation has had an ongoing battle with the state Warden’s Office over jurisdictional issues such as the tribe’s bank-to-bank authority over parts of the Penobscot River, and the taking of wildlife on the reservation.

“I’m hoping this (raid) wasn’t an effort to bring that to a head,” Francis said. “We’re going to ask the state to issue a written apology and to put in language that they understand the tribe is sovereign and has its own law enforcement, and also to turn those citations over to the proper authority, which is the tribal police. And if we get a lot of push back on those things that will tell me a lot about what’s going on here.”