AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of Maine’s Indian tribes praised an executive order signed Wednesday by Gov. John Baldacci that aims to improve communications between state agencies and tribal governments.
The executive order, which the governor signed during a ceremony at the State House with tribal leaders, requires agencies to consult with tribal representatives during the development of any legislation, rules or policies that could affect their communities.
To that end, the order directs all state agencies to appoint liaisons to the governments of Maine’s sovereign Indian tribes. Those liaisons will report back directly to the head of the agency.
“The executive order is important not only in its initial phase but is designed to keep relationships between Maine state government and the tribal governments running smoothly for years to come,” Baldacci said.
Tribal representatives described the executive order as an important step forward in improving state-tribal relations that have been strained in recent years. A key element to better relations, tribal leaders have said, is a formal recognition by the state of the tribes as sovereign governments.
The order specifically calls on state agencies to adopt policies that promote “positive government-to-government relations” between the state and tribes.
“This is the first time for the state to acknowledge a government-to-government relationship, and that is big in Indian Country,” said Rep. Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative to the Legislature.
“It is recognition that there are distinct governments within Maine borders,” said Chief Kirk Francis with the Penobscot Nation.
Soctomah and Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation were sponsors of a bill that would effectively achieve the same results, albeit through legislative changes. The executive order issued Wednesday means that the bill, LD 1625, is no longer necessary, Soctomah and Mitchell said.
The order also dovetails with similar agreements at the federal level.
“The order works together with what the Obama administration has been doing with the tribes, and that is direct consultation on issues that affect us,” said Gov. William Nicholas of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township. “I think it is going to benefit all of us in the end, the people of Washington County and across the state.”
Relations between the tribes, the Legislature and the Baldacci administration have been turbulent in recent years.
In 2008, a tribal-state work group issued a lengthy list of recommended changes that included mandatory consultation before any legislation or policy changes affecting tribes.
Other recommendations included jurisdictional parity for all tribes, including the Micmacs and Maliseets, mandatory mediation to resolve tribal-state disputes before they go to court and regular reviews of the 1980 settlement act with tribes.
But the recommendations died in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. There have also been high-profile disagreements between the tribes and the Baldacci administration over proposals to expand gambling on tribal lands.
Chief Brenda Commander with the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians described the order as a positive step in repairing those relationships.
“I think that down the road it will only improve,” Commander said. “It’s a first step, but we have a lot more work to do.”