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Wabanaki Confederacy goes global

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - At the end of a weeklong Wabanaki Confederacy conference, the Wabanaki Council of Chiefs passed a historic resolution calling on United Nations nongovernmental organizations, the Human Rights Council and the Organization of American States to intercede on the tribes; behalf against incursions on tribal sovereignty by states and courts.

The chiefs and tribal members from the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Micmac and Abenaki tribes from both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, the Narragansett Indian Tribe, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and other nations attended the conference on Indian Island June 21 - 29.

The resolution was adopted unanimously. It states that the Council of Chiefs ''accept[s] the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as their governmental foundation in the relationship with Canada and the United States,'' and notes that those governments' refusals to adopt the declaration casts doubts on their future ability to engage in government-to-government relations with the tribes.

The Penobscot Indian Nation hosted the conference just two months after severing its relationship with the state of Maine, following a legislative session that crushed all initiatives to improved tribal life. But even before the session, state and court decisions had virtually erased the tribes' sovereignty.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis sat down with Indian Country Today just after the resolution passed for a conversation about the conference and recent events.

Kirk Francis: The conference was good. We were expecting more people, but in the end we got a lot of representatives and I think people are starting to realize there's a lot of commonality among the tribes.

Indian Country Today: Was the main theme solidarity and the tribes beginning to work collectively?

Francis: Yes. What we heard during the week and at some of our talking circles and ceremonies is the tribes realize that without getting together as tribal people, the mountain we're trying to climb for economic development, education, social services and all the issues that face us presents the same obstacles to all of us, so how do we pool our resources so each tribe doesn't have to break trail trying to get the same results?

We talked mostly about sovereignty, self-governance, and how to get our voice heard so people understand that these things are happening, they are important, and the tribes are kind of fed up with it. We thought this U.N. NGO resolution was a way to take a collective and global approach into an arena that has a powerful voice and would speak and advocate on behalf of the tribes. More than 70 chiefs weighed in on the U.N. resolution.

ICT: It was remarkable to hear [the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer] say that the state passed ''guidelines'' regarding the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, as if they have any authority to do so.

Francis: That's what we're facing. Whether it's how we distribute our services, our education, land use, the environment or repatriation, the state has its hands in every aspect of tribal life and we're just tired of it, so we decided to move away from that and we've made some great strides in doing that.

ICT: But the state has no authority to decide that ''cultural affiliation'' applies to remains going back only 1,000 years.

Francis: Our ancestors have the right to be buried with the same beliefs they grew up with. We have a responsibility as tribal leaders to bring them home and give them proper burial, and for the state to put definitions like how many years we can claim our ancestors and talk about them like they're just objects of history is really disturbing.

ICT: I wonder how they would respond if a tribal nation wanted to keep their ancestors; but that's the core of the problem, isn't it? The people who came here left their ancestors. They don't have the same kind of respect or sense of responsibility.

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Francis: And that's what creates a lot of the friction, I think. Sometimes I get the impression that some people in the state government - mostly the executive branch - think you're just using this Indian thing as some kind of excuse to get what you want. I honestly believe there's a mindset out there that thinks we're not really Indians. That we don't really practice these things or have these beliefs. They think, ''Oh, they just talk about their ancestors, and their future and their elders, to try to get slot machines or gain some kind of control they shouldn't have.''

ICT: Did you do anything formal to sever the state relationship?

Francis: A few weeks ago, we had a visit here for the first time ever from the state Department of Environmental Protection. They wanted to inspect our underground tanks. We immediately drafted a letter to the governor asking him to tell all departments that they're not to be on tribal territory without following protocols. I got a call from the governor's attorney who said they have legal responsibility and enforcement rights whether they have permission or not.

ICT: What about severing financial relations?

Francis: We've got almost all our programs out of state funding.

ICT: How much money does the state provide?

Francis: A little over $2,000 a year in general assistance, close to $40,000 for the child care program, and a $60,000 grant for health services. Then there's the school, which combines tribal funds from the BIA, but it puts us in a spot where we can't really pull away from that because of the other tribes involved unless they choose to do the same thing.

Back in 1978 - '79, the council voted to move the decision-making authority for the school to the school board, so we don't really see that as a governmental function in terms of this separation right now. That's around $1.5 million in a year. The state accounts for about 17 percent of education money, so that's an area we'll have to figure out a way to move forward on, hopefully, with some of our economic development things.

ICT: So apart from the school, the state contributes a little more than $100,000 to the tribe.

Francis: Right. Our budget is in the upper teens [millions], so the state contribution is a very small part of what we do here.

ICT: But the state takes $50,000 from your bingo business. [The tribe has operated a non-mechanical high-stakes bingo game for almost three decades. A bill to add 100 slot machines to the operation was shot down by the governor during the last session.] Why do you have to pay the state $50,000 for Class II gaming? That sounds like a shakedown.

Francis: It is. We tried to get it waived. We operate eight weekends a year. Some quarters have only one bingo weekend and we have to pay the state $12,000. We put $1.8 million a year into the local economy, but all that just gets overlooked. Not only do we not get any gaming improvements by being able to use the same tools that are used 11 miles from us [at a non-Indian casino in Bangor called Hollywood Slots that has just expanded to 1,500 slots], but we continue to have to pay this fee to the state while that business hammers us.

ICT: How are your Class II plans moving? [The tribe has plans to introduce Class II gaming machines.]

Francis: We've set up a gaming commission. We have bylaws. We have a licensing procedure to put in place. We have comprehensive land-use regulations that meet or exceed state standards in every area. We're also starting to work on our own license plates and registration and we're working with the Department of Trust Responsibilities to come up with a tribal passport. So we're working in a lot of different directions and our members and council are so supportive.

We've already been threatened with physical enforcement. We went to them and told them what we're going to do. They said, ''Well, you know, people will be going to jail. There'll be state police there.'' What we said at our general meeting is we're not going to worry about that. We're just going to worry about what we do in here, and do it responsibility, and we'll be fine.