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On Indigenous Peoples' Day, Maine tribes ask for equity

Various state and tribal officials spoke at a rally for Wabanaki rights at the Maine State House on Indigenous Peoples' Day, which was streamed online.
Wabanaki Alliance
via Facebook
Various state and tribal officials spoke at a rally for Wabanaki rights at the Maine State House on Indigenous Peoples' Day, which was streamed online.

On Indigenous Peoples' Day in Maine, Wabanaki and legislative leaders held a news conference outside the State House to call for changes to the 1980 land claims settlement act that paid them reparations for disputed lands.

They say the document is a failed experiment that has diminished Maine's federally recognized tribes who do not have the same rights, privileges, powers and immunities as more than 570 other tribes do around the country.

At 63, Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Darrell Newell of Indian Township says he's old enough to remember when native people were considered wards of the state, when Indian agents exploited them for personal gain and when getting a haircut at the barbershop in town meant waiting for a white man to get one first, even if he and his dad were first in line.

Newell says those things have long since changed. But when it comes to tribal-state relations and especially the power exerted by the state over the tribes, Newell sees no progress at all.

"The state Indian policy now today is business as usual. And now with systemic denial...The state executive branch, Gov. Janet Mills, has been steadfast in the systemic norm of suppressing tribes," he said on Monday.

Newell says Mills has demonstrated a lack of interest in engaging with Wabanaki leaders about tribal-state relations in a meaningful way.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for the governor said Mills has been meeting with representatives of the tribes on a weekly basis since July to work toward consensus on legislation that would restore many of the rights that were extinguished 40 years ago: jurisdiction over fishing and hunting, jurisdiction over certain crimes, ability to regulate natural resources and to tax non-members on tribal lands.

In July, the governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed Maine's four tribes to offer casino gambling and other gaming activities on tribal lands. Mills said in her veto message that improving tribal-state relations remains a priority of her administration.

Democratic Sen. President Troy Jackson of Allagash says it's not just a tribal issue; it's a rural Maine issue. He's one of the supporters of the bill to restore tribal sovereignty, to give Maine tribes equity with their native counterparts and with the state itself, despite concerns raised by the Mills administration.

"This legislation is about self-governance and partnerships. And it's about respect and trust...You know, you can't lie to people consistently and then turn around and tell them to trust you. And that is something that, unfortunately has been happening far too often," Jackson said.

The bill's chief sponsor, Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland, says over the past several decades numerous reports and bills have pointed to the failure of the land claims settlement. In 2012, for example, the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission found that it "created structural inequities that have resulted in conditions that have risen to the level of human rights violations."

The time to restore and advance tribal sovereignty, she says, is long overdue.

"Two hundred years of state governance over tribal nations have produced extreme poverty, short life expectancies, poor health, limited educational opportunities and diminished economic development in their communities," she says.

Mills' spokesperson, Lindsay Crete, said in a written statement that because of the structure of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act under federal law and the Maine Implementing Act under state law, any changes that are made cannot be unilaterally repealed or amended by the Legislature. Crete said that's why the Mills administration wants to be sure that legislative language is "clear and reflects the intent of all parties."

"I think the main arguments against that bill are that it's too big and that it's too much too soon, that piecemeal approach would feel more comfortable," says Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation's tribal ambassador.

"And I think there's just fear...just this real fear of the unknown and that tribes have like this axe to grind...and really it's about equal rights and having our inherent sovereignty respected."

The Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe were federally recognized in 1976.

And for four years, before passage of the 1980 Land Claims Settlement Act, Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Newell says his tribe was a sovereign nation.

But 40 years later he says that sovereignty has been taken away and tribal-state relations are so fractured that his appearance as a vice chief at the State House news conference marked the first time he'd ever spoken from a podium.