Tribal-State Work Group highlights critical issues


BANGOR, Maine - Tribal representatives put three major issues on the table at the first meeting of the Tribal-State Work Group, which is examining possible changes to the legislation governing the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

Dispute resolution, the tribes' status as ''municipalities'' and tribal sovereignty were highlighted as the main issues in need of attention.

The TSWG met Aug. 20, with the clock ticking toward a January 2008 deadline for presenting recommendations for amendments to the Maine Implementing Act. The Implementing Act was passed to put into action the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, and defines the relationship between the tribes and the state.

The first meeting was a step in the right direction, participants said.

''I believe this work group is very important. Our beginning session exemplified respectful listening and learning about the historic Indian Land Claims settlement as well as the concern about loss of sovereignty for the tribes. The attitude of the work group is positive. We are willing to work together to find answers,'' Democratic Sen. Leader Elizabeth Mitchell, the work group's chairman and Maine Senate majority leader, told Indian Country Today.

The work group has a total of 18 members roughly split between state representatives and representatives from the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet tribal nations.

Three of the tribal representatives - James Sappier and Reuben ''Butch'' Phillips from Penobscot, and Wayne Newell from Passamaquoddy - took part in the original Settlement Act negotiations and provided the work group with a historical perspective. Some state representatives were surprised to learn, for example, that Maine's Indians were not given the right to vote in state elections until the mid-1960s.

Gov. John Baldacci formed the work group last year though an executive order.

Mike Mahoney, Baldacci's representative, said the work group is ''off to a good start, to be sure. I am hopeful that targeted amendments to the act can be crafted that work for everyone and that can be presented to the Legislature during the 2008 session.''

When tribal leaders raised concerns back in 1980 that the Settlement Act would destroy tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction, a U.S. Senate Select Committee that was reviewing the act reassured the tribes that their sovereignty would be enhanced.

Until the Settlement Act, the state, the federal government and Maine courts considered the tribes to have no inherent sovereignty and claimed the power to pass and change laws governing the tribes' internal affairs or ''even terminate these tribes,'' the Senate Select Committee wrote.

''While the settlement represents a compromise in which state authority is extended over Indian Territory to the extent provided in the Maine Implementing Act in keeping with these decisions the settlement provides henceforth that tribes will be free from state interference in the exercise of their internal affairs. Thus rather than destroying the sovereignty of tribes, by recognizing their power to control their internal affairs and by withdrawing the power which Maine previously claimed to interfere in such matters the settlement strengthens the sovereignty of the Maine Tribes,'' the Senate Select Committee wrote.

But in the 27 years since then, tribal leaders say that state and court actions have interpreted language, such as ''sovereignty'' and ''internal affairs,'' in a way that has eroded tribal sovereignty rather than strengthen it as Congress intended.

''In the past, the tribes' concerns have fallen on deaf ears,'' Elizabeth Neptune, Passamaquoddy Tribal Council member and work group representative, told ICT.

''I think it's very important for the tribes to put the issues on the table. So I'm very glad we're at least at the table to discuss the issues. I'm hopeful that we'll find a solution,'' Neptune said.

Concerning dispute resolution, tribal leaders said they were unhappy with the status quo in which tribal-state disputes are settled in Maine courts, which almost always rule in favor of the state. The tribes want an independent, outside, objective person to mediate disputes, Neptune said.

The part of the act that defines tribes as ''municipalities'' for the purposes of funding is also problematic, tribal leaders said.

''The tribes are often excluded from some of the funding opportunities or they're held to standards they shouldn't be held to, so there was a lot of concern that the Settlement Act is used [as] leverage against the tribes,'' Neptune said.

The third, and all-encompassing, issue is tribal sovereignty, Neptune said.

Some state representatives view the issue as ''huge'' and suggested taking ''baby steps'' and focusing on small goals, Neptune said.

''But the reality is every tribal representative agrees that the issue of tribal sovereignty is what this is all about and why we're at the table,'' Neptune said.

Even the act's title reflects that Maine tribes have been settling for hundreds of years and forced to take less than what they have a right to, Neptune said.

The tribes' intention with the Settlement Act was to come to an agreement with the state to govern themselves on their own land - to exercise their sovereignty.

''It wasn't about selling our sovereignty or giving any of it up,'' Neptune said.

''We've been in this area for 12,000 years and to be able to say that we still have tribal communities, we still have language in most of them, we still have traditional culture and practices, goes to show that we survived. We are survivors, but we shouldn't have to settle in order to survive,'' Neptune said.

The work group will meet again in October, when tribal representatives will bring proposals for addressing their concerns.