The Secretary of the Department of the Interior has missed an opportunity to make good on the Obama administration’s promise to respect and foster the nation-to-nation relationship with Indian nations.
In fact, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar may have committed a major diplomatic and protocol flub by not even notifying the Wabanaki nations – the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet and Micmac – that he was visiting their territory.
Salazar visited Maine August 18 to focus on land and the great outdoors. The aim of the visit was to “highlight the economic benefits of outdoor recreation and emphasize the importance of continued investment in conservation of parks and other public lands,” according to the Interior Department’s media advisory. He was scheduled to travel the state with Republican Sen. Susan Collins, visit outdoor outfitter L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, tour the University of Maine with state and university officials, learn about the state’s deepwater offshore wind energy potential, and discuss environmentalist Roxanne Quimby’s proposal to turn 70,000 acres she owns into a national park.
Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis said he is “disappointed” that Salazar didn’t notify the nations of his visit or include them as part of his agenda. The Penobscot Nation has been developing eco-tourism and cultural tourism for a number of years now and would have much to say on the subject, Francis said. “The first we heard about his coming was in the newspapers. So it concerns me that the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for the federal government’s trust responsibility to protect us from encroachment and all kinds of issues, would not consult the tribes when there’s a conversation going on about recreational lands, conservation, and a national park in an area that’s very sensitive to the Penobscots,” Francis said.
The sensitive area where Quimby proposes establishing a national park is Millinocket where the Wabanakis’ sacred Mount Katahdin is located. Each year, Wabanaki people retrace their sacred pathway to Katahdin by running, canoeing and walking. “I think it’s always proper for the interior Department, especially at the secretary level, to have a conversation with the tribe because to my mind there has to be serious consideration when you go into Indian country especially in this case where there’s a proposal within miles of Katahdin. That whole area is sacred to the Wabanaki people.”
Quimby, a Maine resident and an ardent environmentalist, is the co-founder of Burt’s Bees, a Maine company that began in 1984 making natural wax candles and has become a worldwide, multi-million dollar producer of natural personal care products. Her plan to turn her 70,000-acre property into a national park has met with some opposition, according to the Bangor Daily News.
Francis said that Interior should formally acknowledge the Wabanaki’s historical presence at Katahdin and in the territory as a whole and realize that the nations could contribute to any land use options for the area. “A lot of the issues or problems arise when the tribes don’t know and we just don’t know what the plan is there and how it potentially affects any sacred sites—70,000 acres is a big parcel of land. And the river (the Penobscot River that has always been the lifeblood of the nation that bears its name) comes from Katahdin.”
Francis also acknowledged the irony in the fact that Salazar, by not meeting with the nations, is ignoring some of the largest land owners in the state. The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy claimed more than 60 percent of the state – their aboriginal territory – during their land claims lawsuit in the late 1970s. They settled for a lot less but even now the tribes combined own around 500,000 acres, Francis said.
Francis said he was meeting with Quimby on August 18 to discuss her proposal. “I think Roxanne is trying to reach out to everybody she can, but at the same time when the Interior Secretary comes to Maine and you have five tribal nations (Passamaquoddy has two communities) you’d think it would be a priority to bring the tribes to the table.” Francis said he didn’t want to be “overly sensitive,” and he isn’t painting Salazar as evil, but he should have made sure that the tribes knew he was in the state and that if they had any concerns he would raise them on the tribes’ behalf and support them. “It’s just disappointing that didn’t happen,” Francis said.
The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment in time for this posting.