INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — State police are calling it a routine bus inspection.
Penobscot Nation tribal officials are calling it a raid and a violation of their reservation’s sovereignty.
On Saturday morning, Sept. 10, three members of the state police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit drove onto Indian Island and boarded nine of 15 buses used to take customers to Penobscot high stakes bingo, according to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland.
The team issued four summonses — one to a driver with a suspended license, one for an out-of-date log book, one for broken brake lights and another McCausland didn’t have available — and eight warnings, five for problems with lights and three for log book issues.
All the while, Penobscot Nation police Chief Robert Bryant and other tribal representatives protested the fact that uniformed state police had crossed over the bridge onto the island with no prior notice.
“I think it was a slap in the face to tribal sovereignty,” Penobscot Nation Tribal Chief Kirk Francis said Wednesday.
“It was the first time in six years as chief and first time in 20 years as tribal leader that I’ve seen this happen,” he added.
During the inspections, the Penobscot Nation’s representative to the Legislature, Wayne Mitchell, called the state to complain about the vehicle enforcement unit’s unannounced, unwelcome presence on the island.
The investigators left the island after the phone call, according to McCausland.
Mitchell could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.
Penobscot Nation officials argue that the Maine State Police went outside its jurisdiction when it sent the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit onto reservation land.
That division usually inspects and regulates tractor-trailer trucks on state highways, making sure everything on the vehicles is in working order and that the drivers are keeping logs updated and aren’t driving for too many hours, according to McCausland.
Buses also fall under that umbrella, he said, but they’re inspected less often because there are fewer of them on the roads.
The Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit regulates buses traveling to Hollywood Slots in Bangor and rafting company buses in the northern part of the state, McCausland said.
“Tribal authority and tribal sovereignty was totally disregarded in this incident,” Francis said. “We’re not talking about a major crime here; we’re talking about traffic issues.”
Francis said that if state police had called the Indian Island police or government asking them to collaborate on an inspection, the dispute could have been avoided.
But the damage has been done, he said.
The inspections were conducted in view of Penobscot high stakes bingo employees and patrons, according to Francis.
He’s concerned that the island might lose business because of the actions of the state police.
“It sent the perception that we were doing something wrong,” Francis said, which might cause some return customers — especially those from out of state — to shy away in the future.
McCausland said “the passengers were not involved, and the buses had unloaded the passengers” by the time inspectors started their work.
The timing of the incident is unfortunate for state and tribal relations, said Donna Loring, a Penobscot Indian Nation Tribal Council member and former Indian Island police chief.
Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order on Aug. 26 calling for stronger efforts between “every department and agency of state government” to recognize the sovereign relationship between state and tribal groups and promote efficient communication between the two.
In this instance, that communication failed completely, Loring said Tuesday.
Public Safety Commissioner John Morris and state police Col. Robert Williams will travel to Indian Island on Sept. 20 to meet with Penobscot Nation officials and discuss the incident, according to McCausland.
“I’m confident that a resolution will be arrived at,” McCausland said. He deferred further comment on whether Maine State Police jurisdiction stretches onto Indian Island until after the meeting next week.
Public Law 280, enacted by Congress in 1953, transferred criminal and civil jurisdiction on tribal lands from the federal to state government in some states, but Maine is not one of these. Francis said the Indian Island police department operates under the authority of the federal government, not the state, so there is no cause for state police to enforce minor traffic offenses on reservation land.
Francis said he would like state police to “admit they were in the wrong” so their relationship can move forward.
In more severe cases, such as a homicide or fatal accident on the island, the Penobscot Nation would ask for assistance from state police because they’re better equipped for the investigation, he said. The agencies have worked together in the past.
“We recognize when our limitations are reached who we need to bring in for help, and we’ve reached out to them on several occasions,” Francis said.
Francis said he didn’t believe that the public safety commissioner’s or governor’s office were aware of the planned state police inspection, and he commended LePage for his efforts to improve relationships between state agencies and tribes. These efforts include the recommendation that every state department and agency designate a “tribal liaison.”
Tim Love, 59, a former tribal governor who ran a bus charter service to casinos in Connecticut in the 1990s, said he can’t recall a dispute like this in his career. He called it a “mess” that he hopes Penobscot Nation officials and state police representatives can resolve by sitting down together.
“This stuff doesn’t need to happen, and hopefully we learn from it,” he said.