March 26, 2019
Contributors Latest News | CMP Project | Bangor Metro | Susan Collins | Today's Paper

A chance for Maine to lead on indigenous human rights

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Gov. Joseph Socobasin (from left), Chief Reuben Cleaves, Gov. Paul LePage and Chief Kirk Francis sign a declaration of intent on Indian Island to begin a truth and reconciliation process between the tribes and the state child welfare system.

In August, the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission sent a 14-page letter accompanied by more than 400 pages of addenda to James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The pages contained reams of evidence bolstering the commission’s claim that the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the Maine Implementing Act have resulted in members of the state’s Wabanaki tribes living in socioeconomic conditions that have risen to the level of human rights violations. This is a serious, but not surprising, allegation.

Last March, I spent a week in the state of Maine. I was invited by the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, or MITSC, to offer three workshops where I analyzed the settlement acts passed by Congress through the lens of both federal Indian law and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I prepared by reviewing many of the treaties, all of the case law and studying the evidence that MITSC had provided the United Nations a year ago when it wrote to Anaya on May 16, 2012, as part of his official country visit to the United States.

As a country, the U.S. prides itself on its founding principles that make human rights the core of governance. We are rightfully proud of our Constitution that articulates and protects those rights. Yet, the canon of federal Indian law is devoid of human rights principles.

Instead, the 19th-century law of colonialism including doctrines of conquest, discovery, plenary power, unfettered guardianship and race defines indigenous rights within the United States. These same principles were written into the acts that would implement the settlement negotiated by the Wabanaki tribes within Maine, the U.S. and the state of Maine. The result is a humanitarian crisis in the five native communities within Maine.

MITSC rang the bell in May 2012 when it sent its first letter to the United Nations.

Anaya reviewed the evidence that life expectancy was 48 to 52 years of age among the Wabanaki tribes living in Maine, that unemployment was between 50 percent and 75 percent, that a mere 40 percent of tribal children in some communities were graduating from high school, that incarceration rates were disproportionately higher than those of other racial and ethnic groups and that lifelong poverty is experienced by a quarter of Wabanaki families.

In his 2012 report, “The Situation of Indigenous Peoples in the United States of America,” Anaya agreed that MITSC proved that this reality is a direct result of the structural impediments embedded in the settlement acts that restrict the capacity of the tribes to develop economic solutions to the barriers they confront. The commission also proved that the tools offered other federally recognized tribes since the Maine acts were passed have been denied to the tribes in Maine simply because the Maine acts prohibit the application of federal Indian laws passed for the “benefit of Indian people.”

MITSC was right to go to the United Nations because this international body has recognized and articulated a human rights framework as the foundation of its dealings with indigenous peoples in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Maine led the way and was the first government in the western hemisphere to pass a resolution in support of the U.N. declaration. This declaration provides a hopeful framework that Maine and the tribes can follow to remedy this humanitarian crisis.

This is not easy work. It is not something that can be done quickly.

This current inequitable situation in our midst is an inherited problem that no one living created. But it is one that we must all solve: It is the necessary work of a generation.

This work cannot start without an acknowledgment that harm has taken place and continues. The MITSC submission to Anaya is an acknowledgement of that harm. Now, Maine has the opportunity to lead again by using the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for healing.

This is a time for hope, and this is a time for action.

Walter R. Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) worked as a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund for 35 years. To learn more, visit

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

You may also like