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Severing relations

Penobscot cuts state ties in unprecedented move

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - The Penobscot Indian Nation has taken the unprecedented step of severing relations with the state after Maine Gov. John Baldacci successfully thwarted a bill approved with a supermajority in both chambers that would have allowed the tribe to operate 100 slot machines at its high-stakes bingo facility on Indian Island.

The governor's maneuver to flip some legislators' votes was ''the last nail in the coffin,'' but it wasn't the only factor, Chief Kirk Francis said.

The Legislature also:

"Disemboweled amendments to the 1980 Maine Implementing Act - a companion state bill to the federal 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

"Slashed the Maine Indian-Tribal State Commission's budget by $40,000.

"Stopped a bill to convert 700 acres of trust land into reservation land for tribal housing programs.

Maine tribes have been prevented from gaming for the past 28 years under a provision in the MIA that has been interpreted until now to prevent them from accessing federal laws passed after 1980, such as the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Now Penobscot plans to move forward with gaming without the state's agreement or ''permission.''

Shrugging off Maine's neo-colonial control may set a precedent for other Northeastern tribes burdened with lopsided settlement agreements that favor state jurisdiction and control.

Francis talked to Indian Country Today about what he called ''a momentous time in our history.''

Indian Country Today: The slots bill went down on the same day the House unanimously endorsed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including indigenous peoples' right ''to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.'' Do you think there's some kind of cognitive dissonance between what the legislators say and what they do?

Kirk Francis: I think Donna and Donald [Donna Loring and Donald Soctomah, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy legislative representatives, who introduced the resolution] meant well. That's the first question I asked Donna: ''Did they read it before they voted on it?'' But I want to say - and this is really important - about 85 to 90 percent of the Legislature [House] and about half of the Senate get it. We know that we have many friends there in Augusta who stuck their necks out for us and we're very, very appreciative of them. They tried to do the right thing and they could be bowled over by the politics.

The problem is at the highest level of state government. Certainly the government-to-government relationship isn't respected. We've never really been treated as equals. We're always talking to some staff person or trying to get our message to the governor through other people. But beyond that, when you're in a situation where somebody is telling you what you can or can't do, it's more like a parental relationship. We're in a place right now where we don't have a lot of choice but to try to stay out of that.

ICT: Were you surprised by the governor's slot bill veto?

Francis: We knew he would veto it. We were disappointed after how hard we worked for it, because we had a lot of support and it got peeled off because of people dealing behind the water cooler. It was the nail in the coffin for us, because the more important issue - more important than slots - was getting the changes to the Maine Implementing Act. The governor didn't make that decision - the head of the judiciary committee fought and killed it on something as simple as refusal to exempt the tribes from the Freedom of Information Act.

So, do we really think now that we can get any changes to the MIA that mean anything? Internal tribal matters? Jurisdiction on our territories? The right to economic development?

ICT: And what happened to the trust land bill?

Francis: We wanted to put the land into reservation status to meet our tremendous housing needs. All the architectural plans and infrastructure are ready to go. But, no, all they cared about was gaming. Sen. [Barry J.] Hobbins, the head of the Judiciary Committee, actually said to MITSC Chairman Paul Bisulca and Craig Sanborn, my director of housing, ''This better be what it's for'' - almost trying to threaten those guys and trying to insinuate that we were doing some kind of end run to get land for gaming.

At the end of the day, you have to trust that the process works, but it never does work for the tribes. And it's too bad, because we know this road we're going down is going to be contentious, but I honestly believe if we don't start to govern our own future there's not going to be much of a future here in Maine.

ICT: Is the tribe's resignation from MITSC the first step?

Francis: It is. We won't be putting any more resources into MITSC until it's given more ability to have an effect on policy and we see it as productive for us. The commission hasn't always ruled in our favor, but we trust that they looked at issues fairly and carefully. Now they've cut MITSC's budget.

ICT: What does it mean exactly to sever the tribe's relationship with the state?

Francis: We're going to structure our own future. We're not going to Augusta anymore to deal with our issues the way they've dictated until there are some real changes, whether it's a cabinet position on Indian affairs or a joint committee that deals with nothing but Indian affairs - whatever the tribes agree to, going forward.

The state has to take steps to ensure that the tribes are respected for what they are - sovereign. I think we've exhausted too many resources, too much energy and too much emotion on a relationship that's only one-way.

ICT: Is the opposition partisan?

Francis: I don't think so. It's pretty much political and the tribes don't hold much political weight in this state.

But the same question comes up over and over: What are people afraid of? We're not going to hurt anybody, or do anything outside the normal business practices, or anything that isn't already being done. When you look at Hollywood Slots [owned by a non-Indian out-of-state company] 11 miles from our reservation and see that $150 million facility and $20 scratch-off cards at 1,500 locations and the lottery and Powerball - all those things sponsored by the state that weren't approved by the people. ...

Our bingo business has been in place for 30 years and employs 65 people. It's being squeezed out because of Hollywood Slots. I think if you're going to bring those economic tools to the area, certainly a business that's been here for three decades should be getting the right to do that.

ICT: The governor says he doesn't want to expand gaming in Maine without a vote, but he put in Powerball and scratch lottery tickets and more slots for Hollywood Slots without a referendum.

Francis: All of those things. If he's against gambling on moral grounds, why does he accept gambling money to balance his budget and fund his programs?

ICT: So, Penobscot is going ahead with gaming?

Francis: Well, we don't want to tip our hand too much, but we think we have some rights under the existing law. We're communicating with the Interior Department and the BIA and we're going to try to get some congressional help. We've hired an attorney who is looking into a litany of issues. We're getting all favorable opinions at this point. They're not going to be slot machines. We're looking at Class II stuff.

ICT: Are you prepared for any kind of confrontation with the state?

Francis: If we put something in place, we're going to be totally sure that it's right. We're going to have the science and the legal stuff behind it. We know the state will probably try to impose its will on us, but at that point, hopefully, it will be a legal fight and not a physical presence in our community.

ICT: How are the other tribes responding to your initiative?

Francis: I think they are all really at their wits' end with this stuff. It seems ridiculous to say that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act doesn't apply to us because we have this contract with the state of Maine that says federal beneficial acts must list the Maine tribes. Well, IGRA says it applies to federally recognized tribes. That's what we are. IGRA doesn't list the other 500-pus federally recognized tribes by name.

ICT: Does this amount to withdrawing from the MIA?

Francis: We'd love to repeal the MIA and that's what we're going to ask Congress to do. The federal act is not an issue. We have a great relationship with the federal government.

ICT: You haven't broken off relations with the state before?

Francis: We feel strongly about this and it's certainly the first time we've made this stand. I think the tribe is now in a very critical place with the economy and the cost of fuel. Those problems are magnified tenfold on the reservation.

If they could just get beyond who we are for five seconds, they'd see that there's really a benefit to working with the tribes. If they could just get beyond themselves for five seconds, this relationship could bring some fruitful things to this area.

I don't know if we can get there, but the tribe has to try on our own. At least if we're making the decisions, we know we've considered all the things that are important to us and moved in a direction that the tribe wants to move in and not having someone else steer our ship.