On Jan. 4, something took place affecting Wabanaki-Maine relations that escaped the notice of most Maine people. Paul Bisulca ended his service as Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC) chairman after more than four years. This profound loss for the Wabanaki and Maine underscores the strained state of tribal-state relations.
During most of Maine’s 190-year history, the state has attempted to control and direct the lives of Wabanaki people who predate the state’s existence by thousands of years. This changed in 1972 when the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation filed a lawsuit to reclaim approximately 12 million acres taken from the Wabanaki. We settled our land claim with the United States and the state of Maine in 1980, resulting in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the companion state legislation, the Maine Implementing Act.
The settlement provided federal money for the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people to buy back up to 150,000 acres of their former lands. The Maliseets received a portion from the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot settlement to acquire land.
Though the return of a fraction of our ancestral lands was a high priority goal during our negotiations, equally important was the creation of a legal framework acknowledging our inherent sovereignty. MITSC exists to monitor the implementation of the Maine Implementing Act and to assist the signatories with resolving disagreements concerning jurisdiction and interpretations of the Settlement Act.
The struggle to exercise our right to self-determination, self-governance and our inherent sovereignty continues today. When we settled our land claims, we looked forward to a new relationship with the state, one based on mutual respect and the recognition of each signatory’s inherent sovereignty. The parent-child relationship that had characterized Wabanaki-Maine relations for most of the preceding 160 years should have ended. Sadly, it continues to manifest itself in many forms.
Maine state government continues to claim the right to control many aspects of Wabanaki lives on our lands despite language in the Implementing Act that excluded “internal tribal matters” from any state interference. For us, internal tribal matters meant never again would we have state Indian agents controlling our lands or be subject to dozens of state laws that applied only to Indians. But one-sided implementation of the Settlement Act by the state, confirmed in 2007 testimony by the state’s chief negotiator, John Patterson, and instrumental U.S. Senate staff person, Tim Woodcock, has reduced the self-determination we should enjoy to a semblance of our original agreement.
MITSC attempted to rectify the unauthorized changes to the Settlement Act by pushing for the signatories to discuss the problems that have arisen with the Maine Implementing Act. A Tribal-State Work Group was initially formed in 2006 through an executive order by Gov. John Baldacci, and later reconstituted and expanded as a legislative entity in 2007. In January 2008, the group issued eight unanimous recommendations.
We entered the second session of the 123rd Legislature with high hopes that the Maine Legislature would act on all the recommendations. Instead, the Judiciary Committee reported out a bill addressing two of the seven policy recommendations. The Judiciary Committee so distorted the original working group’s recommendations that our tribes and the Passamaquoddy rejected what the Legislature passed.
Today we find a state unwilling to act on the group’s recommendation addressing the exemption of the tribes from Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. The state is unwilling to include such a provision in the Maine Implementing Act despite MITSC twice finding that the tribes should not be subjected to this state law.
What recourse do the Wabanaki have when the state so adamantly refuses to fix what is so clearly broken or respect decisions by MITSC that were set up in statute to address these areas of conflict?
Instead these conflicts are, unfortunately, always handled in state courts or through legislative fixes, and always in the state’s favor. We hope that the people of Maine will demand for their government to live up to its agreement with the Wabanaki and allow our governments to determine our own future and participate equally in shaping our great state.
Brenda Commander is chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. Kirk Francis is chief of the Penobscot Nation.