Respecting Maine's Native Americans
Written by Doug Rooks
from Times Record
Relations between state government and Maine's Indian tribes may have reached a new low point during the last legislative session. Not only were the tribes frustrated, once again, in their attempts to restore at least parity with other forms of legalized gambling in Maine, but the Judiciary Committee gutted a bill prepared by an ad hoc work group intended to recognize key tribal rights. And on top of that, the committee also excised funding intended to restart the Maine Tribal-State Commission, which has provided liaison since the 1980 Land Claims Settlement.
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These events are another regrettable chapter in the mutual misunderstandings between Indians, on one side, and federal and state governments, on the other, that have always worked to the tribes' disadvantage.
So where do things stand today? A bit better, perhaps. There have been a few olive branches extended by key legislators, including the simple, though highly symbolic, act of listing the names of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy representatives on the House voting board.
Perhaps more important, the new chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, and Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, seem to better understand the state's unique relationship with the tribes and the need to prevent unilateral state action.
Further, Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot Nation's representative, who traditionally sits on the Judiciary Committee, also seems better oriented to protecting tribal interests and advancing their agenda.
For reasons still unclear, Mitchell's predecessor, Donna Loring, who was defeated for re-election after serving 12 years, did not contest cutbacks in the tribal commission budget, and was not an effective advocate for the reform bill, either.
Mitchell has strong ties to the Penobscot past; an uncle represented the tribe in the Legislature earlier, as did his two grandfathers. And those traditions were evident in his first speech to the Legislature, on a resolution denouncing racism that was prompted by incidents occurring shortly after Barack Obama was elected president.
"We are not born racists," Mitchell said. "Racism, prejudice and hate are all learned and these unfortunate attitudes get passed on from generation to generation."
Mitchell also described, politely but firmly, the historical racism that has afflicted the wider society's dealing with the five Wabanaki tribes in Maine, and which continues to leave its mark.
"We must also acknowledge institutional racism that can be far more insidious and challenging to eradicate than individual racism," he said. How many Mainers, for instance, know that the Massachusetts Bay Colony, that then ruled the District of Maine, placed a bounty on the scalps of Penobscots when the tribes refused to take sides in what we know as the French and Indian War, shortly before the Revolution?
To say that this is "just history" ignores what's still happening. In any other state with federally recognized tribes, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has allowed tribes to open betting parlors at least to the level permitted other owners. But the state asserted — and the courts have agreed — that the Land Claims Settlement requires consent of both parties.
And, following two unsuccessful referendums and several vetoes by Gov. John Baldacci, the tribes have gotten nowhere with their efforts to duplicate the Hollywood Slots parlor in Bangor. Even their attempt to stem lost business at the Penobscot's Indian Island high-stakes bingo games was rebuffed.
Another example: Until the mid-1980s, the state funded the entire tribal commission budget. The current arrangement, which splits costs evenly, was provided as a courtesy by the tribes in a bid for better relations. Imagine what they thought when the Judiciary Committee rendered the commission ineffective by preemptively reducing the appropriation.
This will never be an easy relationship. While the tribes often use the word "sovereignty" in describing their position vis-a-vis the state, what they are talking about is a mixture of independence and co-existence.
It should go without saying (but doesn't) that the tribes should be eligible for all relevant federal grants. It should also be evident that tribal governments are not akin to municipalities, so their internal proceedings shouldn't be subject to the same provisions of the Freedom of Information Act that govern state, county, and local government (and which have plenty of state-level exemptions, by the way).
Again, the Legislature has resisted recognizing the tribes as a distinct entity.
The current legislative session might not yield major improvements to the tribes' status. At this point, just getting everyone back at the table would be notable.
Yet as lawmakers take up tribal issues again, they should clearly acknowledge that a little respect goes a long way — and is always a good place to start.
Douglas Rooks returns to the Maine political commentary arena with Re: Maine, a weekly column on state government and related issues. Re: Maine will be published Thursdays in The Times Record. To contact Douglas Rooks, email@example.com.
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762