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A level field for tribal-state relations
Written by Sun Journal editorial
from Sun Journal
In the years following the Maine Indian Settlement Claims Act, the promise of rejuvenated tribal-state relations has proven flittering, with anger and frustration turning negotiation and compromise to dust.

The state and tribes have butted heads over sovereignty, influence, equality and respect. Each conflict tears open old wounds, and renews claims of classism, racism, discrimination and dishonesty.

It's fair to think tribal-state relations will never be perfect. Too much has happened to forget the past. But the relationship can work, it can function; it shouldn't be as confrontational and mistrusting as it has become.

LD 2221, now before the Legislature, would build a needed bridge between the tribes and state. It reopens the settlement act, fixes what's broken, and sets the stage for the tribes and state to move into the future together.

One facet of the bill - which is derived from a lengthy report by the Tribal-State Working Group - is dangerous to this process: exempting tribes from Maine's strongest government accountability tool, the Freedom of Access Act.

Tribes portray exemption as a sovereignty issue. Paul Bisulca of Oxford, chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, says information access is an "internal tribal matter," although none of Maine's tribal governments has a published access to information policy for tribal members.

FOAA, Bisulca said during a recent meeting at the Sun Journal, is "your law, not our law."

We submit FOAA belongs to everyone, as the law is as equitable as they come. "Every person," the FOAA law states, may request public documentation and materials from government, regardless of their residency or citizenship.

Exempting tribes from FOAA is self-defeating, if LD 2221 intends to foster stronger tribal-state relations. Letting tribes operate beyond its scrutiny could invoke sentiments of mistrust beyond those existing today, as the appearance of a tilted playing field between tribes and state breeds confrontation.

As it has for decades already.

The rest of LD 2221 is laudable. The bill unites Maine tribes under the terms of the Settlement Act, gives MITSC responsibility to mediate tribal-state conflicts, and ensures tribal influence on government actions affecting the tribes.
These are the fruits of compromise, and unity. Exemption from FOAA would be divisive. Tribal-state relations are unlikely to improve if state and local governments are held openly accountable, while tribes can operate behind a veil.

No government operates in a vacuum, as well. Tribal and state interests often clash, most recently over water quality actions, casino gambling and liquefied natural gas.

Overcoming impasses on these important issues requires a strengthened tribal-state relationship, built on the knowledge that both sides are subject to the same rules of scrutiny and oversight.

LD 2221 can improve relations, by striking out the tribal exemption to FOAA.

Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Office: 207-733-2222
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762

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