Commission in shuttle diplomacy to heal tribal-state rift
Written by Gale Courey Toensing
from Indian Country Today
INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission has met separately with tribal leaders and the governor in an effort to bring the parties together, but so far the relationship remains severed.
The Penobscot Indian Nation cut all ties with the state last summer after a disastrous legislative session that saw every initiative to benefit the Wabanaki people quashed.
With the exception of the Passamaquoddy community at Indian Township, the Passamaquoddy at Sipayik, the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, and the Houlton Band of Maliseets have also kept their distance from Gov. John Baldacci.
In the latest reconciliation effort, MITSC Chairman Paul Bisulca, Penobscot, and Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall met with tribal chiefs and council members at Penobscot on Indian Island Nov. 20.
The four-hour meeting was heavily attended, but only one of eight agenda items – tribal-state relations – was discussed.
“It was a tough meeting with the Wabanaki chiefs. The first question on the agenda was, what do the tribes want from the state? Many people have different ideas. There was no consensus,” Dieffenbacher-Krall said.
The tribes are looking for significant change, he said.
“They aren’t prepared to come back under the old circumstances. They want a process where the Wabanaki people’s positions are respected. It’s not an ego thing and it doesn’t mean they want to get their way 100 percent of the time. They’re some of the oldest continuous governments in the world. They have inherent sovereignty. They want to be treated that way.”
Dieffenbacher-Krall said the process is frustrating, but MITSC will continue to speak with both parties.
“It’s like shuttle diplomacy. I’m hoping that finally something will emerge where the parties feel it’s worth all their whiles to talk to each other,” he said.
Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said the chiefs’ meeting was productive.
“All the tribes were talking about this issue with a unified voice, for a change, and I thought we were able to hash out some issues in terms of where we’re going collectively. There was lot of differing opinions,” Francis said.
Francis said he understands Bisulca’s and Dieffenbacher-Krall’s frustration in trying to repair the damaged relationship between the tribes and the states.
“Paul and JDK tend to look at what’s happened in the last two years and say, how do we get over those things? But we look at the last 200 years and say, well, we had this same conversation in 1930; we had it in 1951 when the state was trying to terminate us and in 1967 when we were finally allowed to vote. We had it during the land claims era when things were very racial and there was a lot of tension. Then there’s the 1997 at Loggerheads report that talks about tribal frustration with the relationship, and we’re still talking about it today,” Francis said.
But MITSC isn’t the problem, he emphasized.
“They have a job to do and I hope we can continue to support them from a distance. But they are participating in a system that doesn’t allow us to be a part of it right now. We have no faith in it,” Francis said.
Tribal membership and the council have fully supported the separation, Francis said.
“Life without the state relationship is less stressful. We’re just going about our lives and moving toward more independence, which we should be doing anyway,” Francis said.
The tribes heard through MITSC that Baldacci offered a cabinet level position to deal with Indian affairs, Francis said, “but we don’t know if there were any conditions, or if it’s something he’s just going to do, so we felt, well, what do we say to that? I think it would help. But I haven’t heard anything about it since.”
The tribes will meet again this month to prepare resolutions “on paper” about their approach to the new legislative session, which began Dec. 3.
“One of the things we’re finding out is if we’re not all together on this issue of tribal-state relations, it’s going to be difficult for one tribe to carry that ball,” Francis said.
The most important initiative destroyed in the last session was a bill that would have amended the 1980 Maine Implementing Act (MIA), a state companion bill to the federal Maine Indians Land Claim Settlement Act. The bill would have restored at least some of the tribal sovereignty intended in the original legislation that has been eroded over the decades by a state-judiciary collaboration.
Baldacci informed the tribes through MITSC that he is willing to sponsor the legislation again this year. Part of the bill would put the Maliseets on equal footing in terms of rights as the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes.
“We’re interested in that,” said Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander. “We’re always hopeful that something might turn around. We try to be positive although the experience we had at the last session was very disheartening and negative. We’ve bounced back again, given some time and we’ll try again. We’re very grateful for the work MITSC does, but we’re still in the same place as we were earlier this year. There has been no outreach to our tribes from the governor’s office at the state level,” Commander said.
David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, confirmed that Baldacci has offered to sponsor the original MIA amendments as recommended by a Tribal-State Work Study group that he appointed. The recommendations were presented last January to the Judiciary Committee, which promptly stripped it of all significant amendments, resulting in the tribes’ refusal to support the bill. Any changes to the MIA require both tribal and state approval.
“We have to review them again to make sure everything’s still applicable,” Farmer said.
Farmer said a meeting between the governor and Bisulca in early November was “cordial.”
“The governor is still working to strengthen the relationship between his administration and the Native American communities in the state. I can also say the relationships aren’t as strong as we’d like them to be,” Farmer said.
Farmer said the Penobscots are “the only ones we’re aware of who have taken such drastic steps. There are varying degrees (of separation from the state) in each of the tribal communities. They act differently among themselves toward the state, I would say.”
“If you look at the relationship with the Passamaquoddy (at Indian Township) and Gov. (William) Nicholas and Gov. Baldacci, that relations is comparatively very strong, but the relationship with the Penobscot Indian Nation is certainly the most strained,” he said.
Nicholas did not return calls seeking comment.
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762