After 150 Years Penobscot Nation Cuts Ties with the Legislature

Jun 20, 2016

A year ago, the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe pulled their tribal representatives from the Maine Legislature in protest of being marginalized by state government for decades.

Now the Penobscots have decided to cut ties for good and take its conversation to a new level. Tribal members want to interact with Maine government as one nation to another.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis says little progress has been made in the effort to create a productive and respectful relationship with the state of Maine. The way Francis sees it, the Penobscot Indians have been a nation within a nation ever since the end of the Revolutionary War and tribal members say that’s not a bad perspective as a basis for future relations.

“The idea that stuck the most with everyone has been to create an ambassador of the tribe,” Francis says.

Even when relations between the tribes and the state were more cordial, Maine Indians have never been happy about a legislative system that gave them a voice in the Maine House of Representatives but no voting rights. And Francis says that efforts to establish some tribal representation in the Senate have continually been rebuffed by Maine’s elected legislators. Citing little or no progress on gaming accommodations, disputes over fishing and hunting rights and control over water quality standards and access, coupled with patronizing attitudes toward tribal representative from the Legislature, Francis says the Penobscot Nation will empower its own ambassador to deal with the government of Maine — or any other government for that matter.

“So we’re moving forward with a position that will handle the government relations agenda of the tribe within the state and within the federal government in a way that’s very cohesive and very targeted and with an eye on diplomacy but also educating and working to try to resolve issues and put the tribe in the best position to be successful from a policy standpoint,” Francis says.

“I’ve missed not having the tribe being represented here and think there is a void for sure,” Jeff McCabe says.

Maine House Democratic Majority Leader Jeff McCabe says he plans to meet with House Speaker Mark Eves to discuss the Penobscot’s decision to terminate the tribal representative position, which has been in place for more than 150 years. McCabe says that while tribal relations with the the Legislature have had their ups and downs, Democrats have tried to maintain a welcoming attitude toward Maine’s native peoples.

“For me it’s been difficult not having the tribes here because of the perspective they provide,” McCabe says. “In my time here the tribes have always played an active role sometimes caucusing with the Democratic caucus. We have been more than open to inviting members of the tribes to play an active role in our caucus and also right now, Rep. Bear is actually running for a House seat as a Democrat in the House District that he lives in.”

That’s Rep. Henry John Bear, of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, who did not withdraw, and continues to represent the tribe in the Legislature.