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Colonial thinking
Written by Times Record editorial
from Times Record
Efforts during the 2008 legislative session to improve relations between Maine's native tribes and state government backfired horribly. Late-session legislative maneuvering triggered a communication breakdown that threatens to rupture into an irreparable breach of trust.

The session began with hope that passage of LD 2221, "An Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Tribal-State Work Group," would generate synergy for a new era of détente between the state's political leaders and its indigenous peoples. That optimism vaporized in the chaos that marked the 123rd Legislature's frantic efforts to conclude its business.

Before passage but without further negotiation with tribal leaders, the Judiciary Committee unilaterally amended elements of LD 2221 that tribal leaders had highlighted as critical affirmations of their "inherent sovereignty." Those late changes outraged tribal leaders.

Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee seemed oblivious to the significance that tribal leaders place on the principle of sovereignty, and the amendments conveyed a degrading message that the Legislature believes it can exert the same authority over Wabanaki "nations" as it does over municipalities. Federal law and the Maine Indian Claims Act of 1980 contradict that patronizing presumption.

The Legislature's decision to slice $38,000 from the state's annual contribution to the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission — without notifying Wabanaki representatives — exacerbated the problem. Legislators' overbearing intervention in a bill that would have authorized a procedural maneuver to convert 700 acres of Penobscot trust land into reservation land for a housing project just made matters worse.

The Penobscot Nation quickly announced its intent to cut all ties with state government, an unprecedented display of exasperation. Other Wabanaki tribes are considering similarly drastic measures that involve bypassing the State House to deal directly with the federal government. If that happens, the 123rd Legislature's marginalizing of tribal-state relations could yield costly long-term legal and social repercussions.

The tribes are justified in their frustration and anger. The details of legislative action were less injurious than the tone lawmakers took in their approach to tribal matters. The Judiciary Committee's decision to alter LD 2221 without tribal input prolongs a tradition of colonial paternalism dating to the arrival of European settlers on American soil. The cumulative effect of 500 years of government-sanctioned disrespect and convenient recollection cannot be ignored.

"Certainly the government-to-government relationship isn't respected," Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis told the Indian Times in an interview published on May 2. "We've never really been treated as equals. ... But beyond that, when you're in a situation where somebody is telling you what you can or can't do, it's more like a parental relationship."

Maine state government can't continue to assert parental control over the tribes. The state's political leaders must make it a priority to engage in serious, equilateral talks with the Wabanakis.

The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission provides the best forum for those talks. A full and immediate restoration of the commission's budget would represent an appropriate act of triage to begin treating new wounds that state government bears responsibility for inflicting.
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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