New era in tribal-state relations
Written by John Dieffenbacher-Krall
from Sun Journal
Nearly five years ago, I was among a group of more than 200 people, mostly Wabanaki, who ended a two-day march with a culminating rally at the Capital. Penobscot Chief Barry Dana had conceived of the march to protest the state of Maine compelling the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe to turn over documents that paper corporations had requested under the Maine Freedom of Access Act.
The Freedom of Access Act dispute occurred during a larger political battle over delegating authority to regulate wastewater dischargers from the federal to the state government. Perhaps the low point in this sad chapter of tribal-state relations occurred when Superior Court Judge Robert Crowley threatened to jail tribal leaders if they did not comply by turning over the documents requested by the paper corporations.
The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC), created by the Maine Implementing Act (MIA), Maine's codification of the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement, exists in part to settle disputes arising between parties to the settlement act. The Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe contended the paper corporations' information request infringed upon an area described in MIA as internal tribal matters, the right for tribes to deliberate and conduct their own governmental affairs.
Twice MITSC considered this question, in the context of the specific circumstances of the paper corporations' Freedom of Access Act request. Both times commissioners found "that this decision does not reflect our understanding of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and its companion Implementing Act."
Though the political entity created by the parties to the settlement act - MITSC - offered an opinion, the state disregarded it. Litigation involving this case continues before the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, reflecting a zero-sum approach of "I win, you lose." Maine has lost even when it seemingly has won in the courts and politically. What it's lost is the opportunity to partner with the Wabanaki tribes, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Houlton Band of Maliseets, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation, to realize greater prosperity for all peoples involved.
Last year, Wabanaki and Maine leaders held the equivalent of a summit, which resulted in a new direction in tribal-state relations. The principal source of tension in the relationship was removed when Gov. John Baldacci became the first Maine governor since the passage of the settlement act to express a willingness to discuss changes to MIA sought for years by the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation.
Encouragingly, tribal-state relations are moving from the zero-sum approach to one of mutual benefit due to the leadership of Gov. Baldacci, the Wabanaki leaders, and a new commitment by MITSC to fulfill its original purpose.
Following the Assembly of Governors and Chiefs, Gov. Baldacci backed his words by issuing an executive order with the approval of Wabanaki leaders to create a Tribal-State Work Group, to examine possible changes to MIA. The group issued an interim report Dec. 6. A bill is now under consideration to continue the work group as a legislative body, and expand its representation to include the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribal representatives along with two more members of the Maine House.
Gov. Baldacci also became the first Maine governor to nominate a Wabanaki person for a seat on the University of Maine System Board of Trustees. On March 20, the State Senate unanimously confirmed Wayne Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe for a five-year seat on the Trustees.
Tribal leaders deserve praise for focusing on areas of agreement instead of disagreement. While the tribes can point to many failings by state government to adhere to agreements and fulfill legal and moral obligations to the Wabanaki people, current tribal leaders have sought to promote understanding and agreement instead of conflict, while reminding everyone of their inherent sovereignty as the first people in what we today call Maine.
MITSC has contributed to the climate of improving tribal-state relations by embracing its responsibility to "continually review the effectiveness of this Act and the social, economic and legal relationship between the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation and the State."
MITSC no longer solely advises, but also acts in the interests of all parties to the settlement. MITSC now seeks to ensure the successful implementation of any project or task assigned to it by the parties to the settlement act. Though MITSC has a part-time executive director and volunteer commissioners, it aspires to goals and action worthy of the sovereigns who created it.
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762