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Tribes Pull Reps from Maine Legislature as Sovereignty Issues Come to Boil

A.J. Higgins
From Left, Tribal Chiefs Fred Moore, of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point; "Billy” Nicholas, of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Indian Township and Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation, talk with reporters.";

AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine's Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes today withdrew their representatives from the Maine Legislature, citing frustration with what they say has been the state's continued failure to recognize the sovereign rights of native peoples. Tribal leaders say that, from now on, they'll rely on each other instead of the state.

Shortly before the beginning of the legislative session, the tribal representatives for the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe asked to meet with House Speaker Mark Eves. No one in the House had an inkling of what Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Matthew Dana was about to announce.

"For the first time since the 1820s, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot nations' representatives will no longer be taking a seat in this chamber," Dana said.

The tribes have essentially recalled their representatives from the Legislature, citing frustration with the state's position on issue ranging from casino gamble to fishing rights. The tribes also made it clear that they are unhappy with a recent decision by Gov. Paul LePage to rescind an executive order from 2011 that proclaimed a special relationship between the tribes and the state.

LePage says, while he recognizes the tribes' are sovereign in their own right, he believes that they are also subject to the laws of the state. Penobscot Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell told his seat mates in the House that the two tribes could no longer participate in a process that seems to assume a kind of guardianship over native people.

"The Maine tribes have reached a very critical juncture in our history," Mitchell said. "As sovereign nations we must find a better path forward - one that respects our inherent tribal authority and allows for all of our people to prosper in all areas of their life."

As the two tribal representatives walked off the floor, a large number of Maine Indians were gathering outside the State House to rally against what they characterize as years of unfair government policies. Much of the ill will stretches back to the terms of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 -- an historic agreement that tribal leaders say they had believed would mark the beginning of a relationship with the state.

But Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis says the act really signaled the end, as the state essentially turned its back on tribal concerns.

"The state of Maine's restrictionist view of the Maine Implementing Act has put us in a position where we feel like we're participating in perpetuating a guardian of the tribe's responsibility they feel they have, and that's not what it's supposed to be," Francis said. "The Implementing Act was set up to highlight areas where we could find common ground and communicate, and that just hasn't happened. It's always, 'Do it our way and we'll get along just fine.' "

Fred Moore, the Passamaquoddy chief at Pleasant Point, says the tribes will now have rely on each other to govern such issues such as control over the Penobscot River and other tribal waterways, to make determinations over sustenance fisheries, including the lucrative elver harvest.

"We have not collectively seriously considered how our people are going to feed themselves, sustenance for example is defined by us by the undertaking - not the disposition," Moore said.

That means that tribes should have control over who has access to tribal waters, an argument that is the focus of a federal lawsuit involving Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. Mills challenges the Penobscot Nation's position on control, and is critical of its moves to issue summonses to people fishing on their lands.

"The Penobscot River belongs to all the people of Maine, not just one tribe or one group, but all the people," Mills says. "It's held in trust for all the people of Maine and we want to keep that that way."

Not all of the state's tribal representatives, however, have walked out of the State House. Henry Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseets says he's staying put. "Our chief and council have expressed total support for the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, but they're taking a different direction," Bear said.

House Speaker Mark Eves said he hoped the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes would reconsider their decision. Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, said Gov. Paul LePage continues to stand by his decision rescind the executive order affecting the tribes because he says the tribes have not respected the interests of the state.