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Penobscots’ new representative will guard ‘the (legislative) door’

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – The Penobscot Indian Nation has elected a new representative to the Maine Legislature.

Wayne Mitchell won a two-year term as Penobscot legislative representative in tribal elections held Sept. 13, defeating incumbent Donna Loring by a vote of 233 to 195. It was Mitchell’s second run against her.

Loring left the Legislature on a high note. In her last act last spring, she submitted a resolution co-sponsored by Passamaquoddy representative Donald Soctomah to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both the Senate and the House passed the resolution unanimously on the last day of the legislative session.

On leaving the tribal representative position after a dozen years, she said, “I trust the wisdom of the collective vote from the community and I wish Wayne well. I look forward to a new chapter in my life and will find other ways to support the tribe.”

Mitchell is a former member of the tribal council and a current member of the board of directors of Penobscot Indian Nation Enterprises, the nation’s economic development organization. His term begins Oct. 1.

Although it is his first time as legislative representative, he is continuing a family tradition.

“I had an uncle who was a legislator for the tribe back in the 1960s and I spent time with him in Augusta back then. My grandfathers on both sides were representatives – my mother’s father and my father’s father – and I’ve been before the Legislature on several occasions,” he said in a phone interview.

Mitchell said he ran on a platform of transparency, communication, responsibility and accountability.

“The responsibilities of the legislative representative are to go in the direction the tribe wants to go. The council and the chief develop legislative strategies, and they are drafted and brought to the people in a general meeting where the people have the opportunity to voice their opinions and make changes; and once that’s done and approved, it’s put into legislative form and presented to the state Legislature.

“The problem has been that in the past, things haven’t been done quite that way. Things were changed in the last minute that people didn’t have time to participate in.”

The process breaks down at the state level, he said, referring specifically to a bill put forward last legislative session to amend the Maine Implementing Act, a 1980 bill that put into force the Maine Indian land Claims Settlement Act.

The bill during the last session contained recommendations by the Tribal-State Work Study Group, which was appointed by Gov. John Baldacci.

“The tribes initially accepted the study group recommendations as they were presented, but by the time they went through the legislative process it was a completely different document; and it was passed by the Legislature and, in fact, by the government, but we didn’t accept it because it did nothing.”

The failure to pass the recommendations was in large part the reason why the Penobscot Nation severed ties with the state after the legislative session ended. But the broken relationship does not include pulling the tribe’s representative out of the Legislature.

“We need a representative there. We have a relationship with the state legally. We need to make sure that the state doesn’t do anything that tries to abridge what the tribe has in place. I’ll be at the door, metaphorically.”

Maine is the only state in the country with tribal representatives seated in the state House of Representatives, a practice that began after Maine was formed as a separate entity from Massachusetts in 1820 but likely goes back to the Revolutionary War era, when the Wabanaki tribes responded to George Washington’s call to fight on the part of the colonies against England.

Only the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes have legislative representatives; the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians do not.

The tribal representatives may serve on committees, chair study committees, and sponsor legislation and resolutions, but they cannot submit amendments and they cannot vote either in committee or on the House floor.

Among Mitchell’s top priorities are working to having tribal sovereignty understood by the state, and finding a way for the tribe to participate in the state’s “economic environment.”

“We’re one of the largest 100 employers in the state and our resources contribute to a lot of job creation in terms of the timber industry, for example. It creates jobs for non-Native people and keeps them employed. The state did have a grasp of that at one time, but their memory is very short,” he said.

The tribe is not sending a representative to the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, but Mitchell said he will continue to communicate with commission Chairman Paul Bisulca, who is a Penobscot member.

This is kind of a historical moment for the tribe. It might be a little nightmarish in terms of the work that’s going to have to be involved to change things, but I’m going to do my [best].

“The governor called me and congratulated me on my election. He invited me for coffee and a conversation and I told him I’d be amenable to that, but it would be a bare-bones conversation and I would not pull punches, and that I would express to him exactly what my people feel, and he needs to understand that; and if he could put up with that, then we could have a conversation.”