BANGOR, Maine — Maine tribal representatives said they are encouraged by a United Nations investigator’s apparent interest in Maine tribes’ concerns about inequities that have “risen to the level of human rights violations,” according to the head of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.
James Anaya, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people since 2008, visited the United States in 2012 to examine the relationship between U.S. tribes and indigenous populations and find ways of “overcoming existing obstacles to the full and effective protection of their human rights,” according to the UN. The former University of Arizona human rights professor urged tribes from across the nation to contact him with their concerns.
The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission stepped forward, sending a letter and delegation to meet Anaya at the U.N. in New York City in May 2012 to outline their concerns. Recently, Anaya asked the group for more information. The commission sent a more detailed 14-page letter and dozens of pages of supporting documents in response, according to commission Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall.
Almost all the complaints traced back to the 1980 federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which sought to resolve disputes over tribal land by paying the tribes’ more than $80 million and giving them federal recognition. In exchange, the tribes agreed to be subject to regulation by the state of Maine, except as to internal tribal matters.
Among the dozens of issues raised about regulations and inequities were:
• That the state has imposed “limits on tribal self-determination” through court rulings since the federal agreement was crafted that were not inherent in the agreement.
• The state’s restrictions on the lucrative elver fishery and other fishing opportunities, which have met opposition from Maine tribes who argue they have sovereign rights to regulate their own fisheries.
• The Houlton Band of Maliseets is not permitted to “exercise nor enjoy the powers, privileges and immunities of a municipality nor exercise civil or criminal jurisdiction within their lands.”
• Multiple court cases that restricted what is considered an “internal tribal matter,” which the tribes say have resulted in infringements of sovereign tribal rights, ranging from environmental regulation oversight to restrictions that halted efforts to start the state’s first casinos.
In his final report on the visit, Anaya sums up concerns expressed by the commission that Maine’s Indian Claims Settlement Act “creates structural inequalities that limit the self-determination of Maine’s tribes; structural inequalities contribute to Maine tribal members experiencing extreme poverty, high unemployment, short life expectancy, poor health, limited educational opportunities and diminished economic development.”
It’s a short statement, and Maine’s only specific mention in the report, but Dieffenbacher-Krall said the commission believes it’s significant. He said Anaya’s request for more information is a sign that the U.N. could use Maine’s case to help shape any future work with the U.S. government on indigenous rights.
When asked to respond to the frequent counter to tribal settlement act complaints that the tribes had representation and agreed to certain regulations and concessions when the agreement was formed in 1980, Dieffenbacher-Krall said inequalities have grown over the years because “unilateral interpretations of the act” by the Office of the Maine Attorney General, state and federal courts have dampened that initial collaboration and revealed inequities.
Maine’s Tribal-State Commission is made up of two representatives each of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Indian Nation — three of Maine’s Wabanaki Tribes — as well as six state representatives.
In the U.S. as a whole, Anaya argued that “although competency over indigenous affairs rests at the federal level, states of the United States exercise authority that in various ways affects the rights of indigenous peoples. Relevant state authorities should become aware of the rights of indigenous peoples affirmed in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and develop state policies to promote the goals of the Declaration and to ensure that the decisions of state authorities are consistent with it.”
It’s unclear what, if any, action the U.N. might take in response to Anaya’s visit to the United States. Based on information they received from tribes across the nation, it’s possible the U.N. would approach the U.S. Congress or federal branch to recommend changes in how the federal government deals with tribes.
“At a minimum, Congress should continuously refrain from exercising any purported power to unilaterally extinguish indigenous peoples’ rights, with the understanding that to do so would be morally wrong and against United States domestic and foreign policy,” Anaya wrote.
To see Anaya’s complete report on his United States trip, visit, unsr.jamesanaya.org/country-reports/the-situation-of-indigenous-peoples-in-the-united-states-of-america.