Is Maine really 'out of the woods?'
Written by Sun Journal editorial
from Sun Journal
In 1980, we hailed the the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act with the following: "Maine appears out of the woods."
The phrase reflected relief at an apparent emergence from a turbulent decade of tribal relations, fueled largely by economic issues.
In a book about the Act, history professor Dean J. Kotlowski (who cribbed our phrase for his title) said the claims "unleashed great anxiety about the future of Maine's economy" among the state's property owners. Its enactment, which granted the tribes $81.5 million, was meant to quiet controversy.
Or as Kotlowski put it, after President Jimmy Carter signed the Act, "all sides breathed easier."
Tensions supposedly relaxed by the Act, however, may have only been dormant. In the aftermath of two failed tribal gaming referendums, in 2003 and this year, tribal claims of prejudice and classism have renewed, revolving largely around issues of economic development.
A tribal racetrack and casino project in Calais was billed as an economic boon for its sponsor, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Washington County as a whole. Its defeat stemmed from the strong anti-gaming campaign and the weak regulatory environment Maine has ridiculously allowed to exist.
This hasn't stopped allegations from the tribes. We understand their concerns, although Maine can boast a progressive record in tribal matters - tribal representation to the Legislature dates to before Maine's statehood - the relations have been dysfunctional - those representatives were later ousted in 1941.
They were re-allowed in 1975; tribal representatives can submit tribal-related legislation and co-sponsor any bill, but are still non-voting members. Though unequal, they are powerful: in 2000, the tribal representatives co-sponsored a landmark bill to remove the derogation "squaw" from official Maine place names.
Yet Maine took seven years to comply; the last holdout, a neighborhood in Stockton Springs, thumbed its nose at the law until relenting in October. Around the same time, Charles Shay, a Penobscot elder and World War II hero, received France's highest honor for his D-Day bravery.
One would think if Maine's Indians can fight for this country, we should respect the culture and values of theirs. Though the prejudicial accusations regarding gambling are overblown, subtle acts of defiance - like the squaw issue - do indicate needed understanding and compassion is lacking.
The tribes, though, haven't had the best luck. Though they distanced themselves from the PIN Rx fiasco, in which a Penobscot-owned mail-order pharmacy dispensed thousands of bogus prescriptions (including some linked to a fatal overdose in South Carolina), the situation was an embarrassment in which the tribe looked used.
Now, a Tribal-State Working Group is considering revisions to the implementing legislation passed by Maine lawmakers in 1979, the precursor to the federal settlement act. A report is due Dec. 5, according to the group.
Whatever it recommends, this effort and the current climate makes one thing clear.
Maine isn't out of the woods. Not yet.
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762