Tribal-state rift awaiting new Legislature
Written by Christopher Cousins
from Times Record
AUGUSTA — The 124th Legislature's two tribal representatives will come to Augusta in January with complex and far-reaching agendas, despite tribal-state relations that some say have plummeted to historic lows.
On top of seeking remedies to big-picture problems such as disproportionately high unemployment and short life expectancy among Maine Indians, tribal Reps. Donald Soctomah and Wayne Mitchell seek to repair what they see as a drastic deterioration of tribal-state relations earlier this year.
The issue came to a head in April when state funding for the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, which stood at $72,277 for fiscal year 2009, was cut by $38,000 as part of a supplemental budget bill. The cut, which MITSC representatives and the tribes say they were not informed of until after the Legislature ap-proved it, was eventually restored by Gov. John Baldacci.
But the damage had al-ready been done.
The tribes and MITSC saw the cut as a unilateral action by the state and a violation of the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act and Maine Implementing Act, which established official federal recognition of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes and affirmed certain self-governing powers.
"I was shocked to learn that the state of Maine unilaterally acted to cut its financial support of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission," wrote Chief Brenda Commander of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in an April 23 letter to Baldacci. "Perhaps even more startling was the failure to consult with my tribe and the other Wabanaki tribes that belong to MITSC. The state of Maine does not have the right to do this."
According to John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of MITSC, the incident capped a long-term trend of the state imposing its will on the tribes without respecting their status.
"Tribal leaders view the current Wabanaki-state relationship as broken," he wrote in a summary of his organization's activities published in October. "Perhaps the greatest casualty in the decades-long deterioration in tribal-state relations is the withering of the deep-seated mutual respect between the parties."
Mitchell, who defeated longtime Rep. Donna Loring in November to represent the Penobscot Nation in the Legislature, said fixing the damage is among his highest priorities.
"The first thing I want to do is rebuild the bridge of communication that's been blown up," said Mitchell during an interview. "There have been a lot of power struggles and those have led to loggerheads."
Soctomah, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe, agreed.
"Relations could improve," he said. "The state is having a difficult time understanding what the tribe is looking toward achieving. Some people think we want to create our own nation. That's not it. We have a history on this land and we want to have tribal rights."
Those rights range from keeping internal tribal documents private to the authority to regulate their own water quality and economic development activity, all of which are issues that have been argued in courtrooms and State House chambers for years.
Paul Bisulca, chairman of MITSC's board of directors, said a basic problem is that the state needs to recognize MITSC's authority to recommend changes to the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act and be willing to seriously consider those changes. But first, he said, the tribes need to be recognized as the sovereign nations they are, which means better and more constant lines of communication and more respect shown for tribal chiefs when they visit Augusta.
Those goals were part of a list of unanimous recommendations developed by a tribal-state work group, which were released in January. They also are among MITSC's priorities for the coming session, which also include requiring every legislator to be educated about the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act and tribal-state relations.
To foster a constructive working relationship, Bisulca said the tribes and MITSC need support and understanding from the governor and attorney general. Both of those people agreed.
"I look forward to growing the state's relationship with the tribes," said Baldacci in a written statement. "While we have our differences in some areas, we share the goals of health, safety, economic development and a solid foundation for our children. We can make progress on these areas while working through the challenges before us."
Janet Mills, the incoming attorney general, said she sees her role as interpreting and explaining legal issues as they arise, but she does not believe she should be involved in setting policy goals.
"I'll keep an open mind as I help interpret and analyze the consequences of whatever I'm presented with," she said. "I'm not the governor, I'm the attorney general. My primary role is interpretation, not setting policy."
Mitchell and Soctomah said once mutual respect is restored, there are complex issues to address, such as creating economic development on reservations so the tribes have the funding to solve some of their own problems. One long-running dispute is the placement of slot machine and gaming facilities on the reservations.
"We don't believe we should have to go to statewide referendum to do something within our historic lands," said Mitchell. "We don't have any economic foundation to sustain ourselves. The gaming revenues we've lost have cost us dearly in our health care and youth programs."
Soctomah agreed and said the fact that the life expectancy for Native Americans in Maine hovers around 58 years old is not lost on the tribes.
"People are talking about this," he said. "Just this summer, there were so many deaths in this community." Soctomah said he is writing a bill to address the problem, partially by tapping federal resources.
"If the tribes agree that some problem exists, the federal government will step in," he said. "If we're ranking in the bottom 5 percent nationally (for life expectancy), something is wrong. Other states have the same problems and we've seen it turned around."
Soctomah said he also wants to recognize Native Americans' history of serving the U.S. military with a permanent Native American Veterans Day on May 1.
In an address to the Legislature last week in support of a resolution denouncing acts of hate and violence in response, Mitchell sought to set the tone for the upcoming session.
"I look forward to working with you in the spirit of justice, embodied in this resolution, to fix the broken Maine Implementing Act of 1980," he said. "I truly believe in the goodness of Maine, the people and its institutions. I look forward to seeing that goodness displayed toward the Wabanaki people during this, the 124th Maine state Legislature."
Loring said she hopes that in her absence, progress can be made.
"If the state truly wants a good relationship with the tribes, they need to respect them," she said. "It really takes a true, honest willingness on the government's part to want to truly help the tribes."
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762