Maine's Obama moment
Written by Times Record editorial
from Times Record
LD 2221, An Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Tribal-State Work Group, presents Maine with an opportunity to make a transcendent statement on race, similar to what presidential candidate Barack Obama did with his March 18 speech.
The bill seeks to clarify issues left vague or unfinished when the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was signed in 1980. More importantly, it holds potential to draw state and tribal leaders out of their deeply dug trenches to engage in serious conversations about unresolved differences that have lurked in the shadows since long before the 1980 agreement was signed.
Passing LD 2221 would redefine the dialogue between state government and Maine's indigenous peoples. In addition to taking a first step toward rebuilding trust between tribal and state leaders, it would push both parties beyond age-old impasses based on stereotypes and discussions that focus inordinately on gambling. Enacting LD 2221 would create an environment designed to foster collaborative consideration of the cultural factors that have long divided the state's rule-makers from its native population.
Conversely, rejecting or delaying LD 2221 would do lasting damage to an already frayed relationship. The tribes would perceive a "no" vote as yet another disrespectful act of "white paternalism," a polite term for oppression based on race.
Opponents' chief complaint against LD 2221 is that it affirms the tribes' exemption from the Maine Freedom of Access Act. During legislative hearings on that aspect of the legislation, the bill's detractors — including the Maine Press Association, of which this newspaper is a member — argued, persuasively, that the Freedom of Access Act protects the public's interest by ensuring accountability and honest government.
Therein lies the problem. History brims with evidence that state and federal governments have been far less than honest in past dealings with Maine's tribes. State access laws have been used in previous negotiations to undermine Passamaquoddy and Penobscot bargaining positions. That historical context cannot be discounted based on the hope that trying to force Native American nations to comply with state laws will somehow promote future accountability or open governance.
Likewise, legislators must acknowledge the tribes' long-held claim to "inherent sovereignty," which spurs Native American leaders to insist that the state's freedom-of-information law applies to internal tribal deliberations no more so than it opens the books of Canada to Mainers. The same sovereignty rationale buttresses the tribes' opposition to Maine court decisions that equate tribal governments to municipalities.
As legislators consider LD 2221 later this week, they will hear arguments that the bill would "limit existing law as to transparency in government," as Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, argued during a Judiciary Committee hearing last week. Such arguments, however well-intentioned they might be, ignore the tribal perspective.
A "yes" vote will foster trust, honesty and respect between the tribes and state government. In the long run, a renewal of good faith between those two entities represents a far greater public benefit than could be derived by attempting to compel Maine's Native American nations to comply with a state law that they don't recognize.
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762