Tribes seeking stronger commitment from state
Written by Edward French
from The Quoddy Tides
Although restoration of much of the funding for the Maine Indian-Tribal State Commission (MITSC) by Governor John Baldacci is welcomed by Passamaquoddy tribal officials, they are seeking a stronger statement from Maine officials of their commitment to work on issues involving the state and the tribes before returning to discussions on those issues.
The legislature, in adopting the supplemental state budget in April, cut $38,000 in funding for MITSC, but at the end of the state's fiscal year Baldacci restored that funding with transfers from an emergency contingency fund. "The cut that the legislature did shows a lack of commitment to upholding the articles in the land claims settlement act," says Rep. Donald Soctomah, who is the MITSC representative for the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township. He believes the budget cut was made intentionally by members of the legislature's Appropriations and Judiciary committees because of issues that were brought up by the tribes in a bill that was developed by a tribal-state work group and submitted during this past legislative session. Soctomah believes the state legislators may have thought that if they pulled the funding for MITSC then they wouldn't have to address the issues concerning changes to the settlement act. He says the restoration of the MITSC funding is a start but doesn't address the issues about which the tribes are concerned.
MITSC's executive director, John Dieffenbacher-Krall, says the commission's budget had been increased for the previous year to pay for his staffing assistance for the tribal-state work group, and some legislators may have felt that, with the group's report completed, there was no need for the additional funding. However, he says members of MITSC want a full-time operation, building his position up from 20 hours per week to 35 hours.
Even with the restoration of state funding, MITSC is looking at a $30,000 budget shortfall, since funding from the tribes is uncertain. The Penobscot Nation and Houlton Band of Maliseets have indicated they wouldn't provide any funding until the state cut was restored.
The commission has not met since April, and it's presently unclear if there would be a sufficient number of members for a quorum to hold a meeting. The Penobscot Nation has withdrawn its representatives, and Dieffenbacher-Krall is not sure if any Passamaquoddy representatives would attend. It's also not clear if the representatives from the Houlton Band of Maliseets are officially part of MITSC, because of issues concerning ratification by the tribes of legislation adding the Maliseets to the commission.
Although he hasn't been formally withdrawn from attending commission meetings, Soctomah says it "will take awhile before we're back at the table." Of particular concern to him are three actions taken during the last legislative session: the removal of most of the changes proposed in the bill submitted by the tribal-state work group to make changes in the Maine Implementing Act, the companion legislation to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act; the refusal to allow Penobscot trust land near Indian Island to be added to the reservation in order to be used for housing; and the veto by Baldacci of the Penobscot proposal for slot machines at its high-stakes bingo facility.
"I don't see justice for the tribes on all three of those issues because of the attitude the state is taking," he says. "It will push us farther from the table." He says Passamaquoddy tribal officials have discussed options ranging from severing ties with the state, as the Penobscot Nation has indicated it will do, to going back and telling Congress that the land claims settlement experiment, that Congress approved in 1980, is not working. Soctomah wants to see a "real commitment by the state that they want to work with the tribes as partners instead of as overseers."
Passamaquoddy Chief Rick Phillips Doyle of Sipayik says the MITSC representative from Sipayik, Hilda Lewis, has not been formally withdrawn by the tribe. However, with the Penobscot Nation not participating in MITSC, he adds, "We do have to assess if MITSC will be of any value to the tribe."
Although pleased that the state is restoring funding for MITSC, Phillips Doyle says "it still doesn't show the commitment by the legislature or by the governor" to working on resolving tribal-state issues. "We hope the state will at some point take the group seriously to keep the dialogue open, so the settlement act can go on as a negotiated vehicle."
"We were serious and we thought the legislature was serious when they talked about improving the settlement act," says Phillips Doyle concerning the efforts of the tribal-state work group. Although much time was spent by members of the work group crafting the documents that became the legislative bill, he says that the legislature "in the end ripped out the guts and gave us a watered down version which wasn't acceptable to us." The bill that was passed by the legislature removed most of the changes that were proposed, leaving only recognition of the Houlton Band of Maliseets and greater authority for the band over its tribal courts and in its jurisdiction, and a new classification in state law for the four federally recognized tribes, making it clear that they are not municipalities. However, none of the tribes ratified the legislation, says Phillips Doyle, so it will not take effect as law.
Much of the original bill was eliminated by the legislature, including proposals to exempt the tribes from the state's Freedom of Access laws; to institute mandatory mediation by MITSC for tribal-state disputes; and to require mandatory consultation with the tribes prior to any legislative or regulatory change by the state that may have an impact on the tribes.
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762