Maine’s Indian tribes have seen more than their share of disappointments in recent years. And because of this, the tribes take a bleak view of their immediate future, believing that much of what they want to achieve has been thwarted by a state government insensitive to their unique position as a “nation within a nation,” as they see it. Some tribal leaders believe the state has been downright disrespectful, and they are waiting for state officials to acknowledge this perceived bad behavior before renewing relations with Augusta.
Instead, the tribes should seize the moment and move forward. Less focus should be put on the process by which the tribes interface with the state, and more emphasis put on negotiating what the tribes want.
It’s encouraging to see evidence that the deep freeze between the tribes and the state may be thawing. In April, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis declared that his nation was severing its ties with the state. But last month, the five Wabanaki chiefs, including Chief Francis, met with the new legislative leaders. Another such meeting is set for this week.
The start of the new year is as good a time as any for the tribes to move past the hurts of the recent past. In fact, it’s a better time than any in the last decade. A new Legislature has been seated, with many new members not privy to past conflicts. The incoming Obama administration is poised to of-fer states funding for infrastructure projects, and the tribes could well be beneficiaries of some of this money, perhaps to be dedicated to much-needed housing projects. The climate in Washington, D.C., is also better than in the last 10 years to seek more federal money to improve health care on the reservations; the tribes would do well to strengthen, not weaken ties to the state for this help.
A new and better relationship with the state is a worthy goal for the tribes to pursue. The tribes would like to see a single point of contact with state government, with staff in the governor’s office and in legislative leadership offices dedicated to Indian affairs, and as important, staff that is sensitive to the uniquely autonomous nature of the tribes.
In these fiscally challenging times, this is not likely to happen.
The tribes have an agenda ready to resubmit to state leaders which they believe will lead to a brighter future. It is an eight-item list of recommendations made by the Tribal-State Work Group that addresses admittedly important reforms needed in state law, reforms that better define and describe the tribes’ unique status.
A far better focus is for the tribes to craft a narrow agenda of practical, short-term gains that would benefit their people. Working side-by-side with state officials to win some or all of these very well could meet the tribes broader goals — more understanding and better relationships.