AUGUSTA, Maine — The chairman of the intergovernmental commission that handles tribal-state relations said he is stepping down in large part because of his continued frustration over state government’s failure to address key issues important to Maine’s Indian tribes.
Paul Bisulca has served as chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission for the past four years. Bisulca said there is more awareness today at the state level about the concerns raised by members of Maine’s tribes, and he acknowledged some improvements in recent years in the relationship between tribes and state officials.
But Bisulca said more progress is needed, especially in the area of creating a process where tribes’ concerns can be aired and addressed by the executive and legislative branches. Tribes, he said, have come a long way since they were effectively “wards of the state” before the 1980 settlement act.
“The tribes have matured politically,” Bisulca said. “The state has not adjusted to that maturity, and they have not adjusted to the changing political needs of the tribes in the state.”
The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, or MITSC, was established as part of 1980 law codifying the Maine Indian Claims Settlement agreement. MITSC’s responsibilities include reviewing “the effectiveness of the Act and the social, economic, and legal relationship between the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Indian Nation, and the state.”
The commission also makes recommendations on land acquisition by the tribes, promulgates fishing rules for water bodies within tribal territory, and makes recommendations on fish and wildlife management.
The membership of MITSC is made up of two representatives each from the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians tribes, four representatives of the state, and the chairman, who is selected by the other 10 appointees.
A member of the Penobscot Nation, Bisulca is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a former career Army officer who also served as the Penobscot representative to the Legislature.
Bisulca credited Gov. John Baldacci with being the first governor willing to talk with tribal representatives about the settlement agreement. Baldacci also issued an executive order creating a tribal-state work group. But he said the group’s recommendations were not adopted by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Those recommendations, which were presented in January 2008, included jurisdictional parity for all tribes, including the Micmacs and Maliseets, mandatory mediation to resolve tribal-state disputes before they go to court as well as mandatory consultation with the tribes before any legislative or policy changes affecting tribes.
The tribes also argued that the settlement act should be officially recognized as “dynamic and flexible” and subject to regular review.
A proposal to allow gambling on Indian land, while a high-profile point of tension between the state and the tribes, is just one of many issues straining relations, Bisulca said.
While Bisulca said the new leadership of the Judiciary Committee has been more open to hearing the tribes’ concerns, he said the rejection of the recommendations struck a strong blow to state-tribal relations.
“The tribes have to know there is a process in which they can express their needs, those needs get talked about and that there is a process to find an answer,” he said.
David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. Baldacci, said the governor supported those recommendations. But Farmer said it is important for the tribes to recognize that state government is not one monolithic structure but rather is made up of executive, legislative and judicial branches.
“It’s at times a difficult relationship, and I understand his frustration,” Farmer said. “The governor is committed to keeping that dialogue open with the tribes.”
Farmer praised Bisulca’s job at the commission and said it was a disappointment that he decided not to serve another term as chair of MITSC.