Maine tribal leaders are encouraged by the straightforward approach President Barack Obama is taking to strengthening relations between all American Indian tribes and the federal government.
They say Obama’s support could mean they have a powerful new ally in the effort to revisit some provisions of the 1980 settlement among the Maine tribes, the federal government and the state of Maine — provisions they say hamper their ability to self-govern and undermine their inherent sovereignty.
A spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci said this week that the state remains open to adopting new policies to clarify and improve relations with the tribes.
But spokesman David Farmer said the tribes must do their part in the negotiations. “Communication has to flow both ways,” he said.
Settlement Act: ‘It failed’
On Nov. 5, representatives from three of the four federally recognized tribes in Maine attended a daylong Tribal Nations Conference at the invitation of the White House. The event brought together about 560 tribal leaders from across the United States, the first such gathering in history, according to Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation.
“This administration is the first to take the initiative to reach out to the tribes,” Francis said in a recent interview on the tribe’s Indian Island reservation. Francis said he is hopeful that Obama will take steps to clarify a nation-to-nation status between the tribal governments and the U.S. government, and to minimize state-level intrusion on issues such as economic development and environmental regulation that affect the internal workings of the tribes.
“We need to get back to the tribes making decisions by themselves,” Francis said. “Respecting inherent tribal sovereignty allows the tribes to determine their own future without interference.”
Francis and other tribal leaders say the provisions of the 1980 federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act have hampered the tribes’ ability to govern themselves and continue to impede progress in economic development, environmental protection and other matters.
According to a 1995 paper published by the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Agreement, arrived at after four years of contentious negotiations, consisted of three basic elements:
— An agreement between the state and the tribes, called the Maine Implementing Act, that was enacted by the Maine Legislature, specifying the laws that apply to Indians and Indian lands in Maine.
— Purchase options from certain landowners to the Maine tribes in which the landowners agreed to sell at fair market value 300,000 acres to the tribes.
— The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, extinguishing the land claims, compensating the Indians $81.5 million for their lost lands and ratifying the Maine Implementing Act. To get the financial award, the tribes agreed to give up some of the powers of self-government that recently had been established in state and federal courts.
In a letter sent to Obama and read at the conference, Chief Brenda Commander of the Houlton Band of Maliseets said the act has failed in its intent to restore and protect the legal, political and ethical rights of Maine Indians.
“The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was not solely about settling our land claim against the United States. The Settlement Act was about establishing a new relationship between sovereigns grounded in respect and trust,” she wrote. “It was to be national model, but it failed. The United States has been conspicuously miss-ing as we native people alone have struggled to have the state of Maine respect the intent of the Settlement Act.”
‘Promises were broken’
In his opening remarks at the tribal leaders conference, Obama said it is important to acknowledge the many injustices of the past.
“Few have been more marginalized or ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans — our First Americans,” he said. “We know the history that we share. It’s a history marked by violence and disease and deprivation. Treaties were violated. Promises were broken. You were told your lands, your religion, your languages were not yours to keep. And that’s a history we’ve got to acknowledge if we are to move forward.”
More recently, Obama said, Washington policymakers have endorsed policies that have excluded American Indians and perpetuated high rates of poverty, unemployment, low educational achievement, crime and ill health among the tribes.
The president pledged to “shake up the bureaucracy” and adopt policies that not only reverse the negative trends of the past but also bring American Indians on board with his economic agenda, especially as it pertains to the development of clean energy sources.
With up to 15 percent of the nation’s most promising potential wind energy sites located on Native American land, and an even higher potential for solar energy production, Obama said his government is prepared to work with tribes to expedite clean energy development and transmission on tribal lands and to ensure that tribes have access to investment funding for such projects.
Francis says relations with the state government have restricted the Penobscot Nation’s ability to develop wind power farms on well-suited land it owns in Maine’s western mountains, as well as stymieing repeated efforts to establish casinos, both on and off tribal lands. Disputes also have erupted over water quality standards in Maine rivers and other environmental matters.
Challenging state policies
While the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 established limited tribal self-governance and restored 300,000 acres to Maine tribes, Francis says the agreement in many ways has been a failure.
For example, some Maine rivers are too polluted by paper mills and other industries for the tribes to be able to use for traditional purposes such as fishing and spiritual practices.
“Sure, we have fishing rights,” he said. “But guess what — you can’t eat the fish, because the water quality regulations and remediation efforts have been set in accordance with industry standards and without meaningful consultation with the tribes.”
Gov. William Nicholas of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township said he has been in repeated contact with Maine’s congressional delegation about the need to change some provisions of the settlement act. With Obama in office, he said, he hopes to see more pressure put on the state to review the Maine Implementing Act.
“If there was a 1 percent state tax enacted 30 years ago and 30 years later it was still 1 percent, you can bet someone at the state would say something has to change,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas said Indian casinos offer one opportunity for economic development that the state keeps quashing. But other state policies interfere as well, he said, such as a provision that allows the state to tax businesses that locate on Indian lands.
“How do you bring businesses to an area that is so socially depressed,” he asked. “We can’t bring businesses here, because they would have to pay taxes to the state.”
Exempting business from such taxes would provide a powerful incentive to companies to locate on the tribe’s sparsely settled lands in Washington County, he said.
‘Either illogical or racist’
At the University of Maine, anthropology professor, tribal relations expert and Penobscot native Darren Ranco said the settlement act runs counter to basic arrangements the federal government has developed with other tribes and effectively excludes Maine tribes from many federal programs and processes.
“It resolved the land issues, but it created a whole set of other problems,” he said. “In court cases, the state spends so much of its resources trying to prevent tribes from exercising their tribal sovereignty,” he said.
In a more “logical” system, Ranco said, the state would work cooperatively to help tribes with sustainable economic development.
“It is either illogical or racist,” Ranco said, “not to trust people who’ve been here for thousands of years with controlling their own destinies.”
Ranco said he is hopeful that the Obama administration will take to heart the issues raised by Maine tribes. “More so than any other president in history,” he said, “he’s made the Indian nations issue a part of his public discourse.”
In an e-mail this week, Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills said she knows of “no special limitations or restrictions” regarding tribal wind farms or other projects in Maine.To the contrary, Mills said, she has spent “a great deal of time” assisting Maine tribes with legislative and regulatory issues, including a provision to allow a tribal court for the Houlton Band of Maliseets. She remains open to addressing issues as they arise, she said.
Mills said she has had no communication from the federal government regarding relations with Maine tribes.