The United States’ decision last week to reverse its position and support a United Nations declaration defending the rights of indigenous people could have positive implications for the Wabanaki people in Maine.
President Barack Obama made the announcement last week during the Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., which was attended by representatives of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes, including Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation.
“On the international side, it shows a unified recognition of rights worldwide, which is extremely gratifying,” Francis said in an interview Sunday. “In Maine what it means is the opening of a new dialogue to start to talk about our federal relationship. This [declaration] provides for a great template on how native people are to be treated.”
Although the U.N. declaration is not legally binding, the declaration “carries considerable moral and political force and complements the president’s ongoing efforts to address historical inequities faced by indigenous communities in the United States,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
The idea of a declaration dates back to the 1970s, but it has taken decades to draft a resolution the U.N. could support. The declaration first was ratified in September 2007, but the U.S. remained the lone holdout until last week.
John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, said that while he believed it was sad that the United States was the last country to sign the declaration, the news was historic.
Francis said he was buoyed by the president’s commitment to tribal sovereignty.
“If you look at some of the things that have happened recently — the Indian Health Care Improving Act [signed into law in March], the Tribal Law and Order Act [signed in July] and the $3.5 billion in stimulus funds that went to tribes — it’s clear that the president supports us,” the Penobscot chief said.
Some tribal leaders in Maine long have believed that two pieces of state legislation passed in 1980, the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the Maine Implementing Act, have harmed the tribes’ economic viability. Specifically, Francis has claimed that a stubborn provision of the implementing act — that no federal law passed after 1980 can supersede it without state approval — has threatened the tribes’ sovereignty and hampered their ability to move forward with certain economic initiatives, such as casinos.
Whether the United States’ support of the U.N. declaration could have any impact on those laws remains to be seen. In the 30 years since the act was passed, it has seen only minor changes related to expansion of tribal authority over some criminal matters on tribal lands and additions to the land trusts.
However, during his announcement last week, Obama said the declaration is a “powerful affirmation” of Indian rights that could guide legislation and government action accordingly.
“From our point of view, the declaration is important in how the [settlement and implementing] acts get interpreted, and how we live under those laws,” Francis said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but I think this is a big step forward.”
In addition to the Penobscots of Indian Island, Maine’s Wabanaki people are represented by the Passamaquoddys at Pleasant Point and Indian Township and the Maliseets and Micmacs of Aroostook County.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.