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Tribes in Maine continue to battle state

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - As the situation in Maine intensifies and tribal leaders are threatened with jail for contempt, tribes from across the country voice concern for what many perceive as a threat to tribal sovereignty.

Tribal leaders in Maine are embroiled in a battle with the state over control of tribal documents and local waterways.

Tribes at the annual session of the National Congress of American Indians in St. Paul, Minn., took emergency action, issuing a resolution of support.

"Support is pouring in from anybody and everybody," Penobscot Gov. Barry Dana said.

"We appeared in court to be arrested with the chiefs from Maine," Alma Ransom, a Mohawk from New York and NCAI's Northeast Area vice president, told delegates in St. Paul.

"Those leaders were treated with no respect at all. They were acting in the best (interests) of their people and they were following the laws that govern their tribe. If they fight, then we will fight. If the state gets them, they get us all."

In early November, three governors of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes were sentenced by a county judge to one year in jail for contempt of court after refusing to hand over tribal records to local paper companies. Tribal leaders say the companies filed for the tribal documents under the state's Freedom of Access Laws in retaliation for the tribes' efforts to protect the river and manage their lands. The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy have over the years engaged in legal battles with these companies over the pollution of the Penobscot River.

"It's been over twenty years since we've been this threatened," Dana said. "We have a connection with the river. The river is our life. We were named by that river and are calling on our brothers and sisters to help us speak in one voice."

Control and jurisdiction over the Penobscot has been a hot point of debate as the Environmental Protection Agency considers an application from the state of Maine to take the river's environmental protection authority out of federal hands, including jurisdiction over tribal waters.

Kaighn Smith Jr., an attorney for the Maine tribes, said Georgia-Pacific Corp., Great Northern Paper Inc. and Champion International Corp. embarked on their search for documents after an Interior Department report argued strongly against giving control of the rivers to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Smith said another reason the companies might resist regulation by the tribes is that the Penobscot water quality monitors found illegal discharges from a stud mill in Costigan, owned by Champion Paper.

"We pulled up two hits. It led to further investigation of the at facility. The result was an $800,000 fine," said John Bangs, the tribe's director of Natural Resources. He added that dioxin contamination in the river has resulted in a standing warning against eating more than one fish a month from the river.

"I was sentenced to jail for standing up for my people," said Gov. Richard Doyle of the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation. "I was fighting to protect our lands for the future generations. This is not about documents or court orders. All we are doing is fighting for our people."

Tribes represented at the NCAI sessions agreed and issued the resolution supporting the tribes in Maine and their opposition to state control of tribal waters.

The resolution underscores the tribes' belief that the situation in Maine may set a national precedent in the authorization of state regulatory authority over tribal waters and lands, as well as extend the reach of state freedom of access laws to tribal government documents "considered privileged information and in the domain of internal tribal affairs."

"It would be wrong to not try and stop this," Doyle said. "We don't want to have to worry about poison in our water and if the state has its way, we won't even be around to say anything."

The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy also face a $1,000 a day fine until they turn over their documents to the three paper companies.

Earlier this month, Smith said the councils were appealing to the Maine Supreme Court and were petitioning the First Circuit Court of Appeals to take over the case. He said tribes feared state efforts to enforce the contempt ruling could potentially lead to violence.

Dana said tribal leaders had to argue with their members not to overreact and in the end decided to defuse the crisis with the legal appeal even if it threatened to compromise their argument that state courts had no jurisdiction over internal tribal matters.

He said the tribes plan to fight their case in and out of Indian country.

As NCAI president Susan Masten said, "If you attack one of us, you attack all of us. We will not stand by and see our brothers go to jail."

Dana said he expected the next show of support to come from the annual Wabanaki Confederation meeting of the Maine delegation at the end of the month. The following day, the Maine tribes are scheduled to meet with Gov. Angus King. He said he also hopes to reach non-Indian opinion through the press and talk shows.

"What is hurting now is finding cash," he said. "If you know of anyone that's rich, we're a good cause.