AUGUSTA, Maine — Citing growing concerns about state government’s apparent lack of respect for tribal sovereignty, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes announced Tuesday that they were withdrawing their delegates to the Maine Legislature.
“We have gone to great lengths to demonstrate good faith and cooperation, only to be lied to,” Fred Moore, tribal chief of the Passamaquoddy at Pleasant Point, said during a rally held outside the State House.
“We have gotten on our knees for the last time,” Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, said. “From here on out, we are a self-governing organization, focused on a self-determining path.”
Officials from both tribes said it was the first time in nearly two centuries that they had walked away from sending envoys to Maine state government. According to researchers with the Legislative Law Library, the earliest record of representatives being sent from the Penobscot is in 1823 and of the Passamaquoddy in 1842.
The Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Houlton Band of Maliseets are each allotted one seat in the House of Representatives. Those representatives may present bills and sit on policy committees, but may not vote.
Both tribes said they would look internally for guidance about the future of tribal-state relations.
Matthew Dana II and Wayne Mitchell, respectively the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot representatives in the House, both spoke briefly from the House floor before walking out of the chamber to join the rally, where dozens of tribal members sang, danced, pounded drums and listened as their leaders outlined their grievances against the state.
The relationship between the tribes and state government has deteriorated in recent years amid clashes over tribal fishing rights, judicial jurisdiction and environmental standards.
The Penobscot Nation is currently suing the state over control of hunting and fishing along the river that bears its name. The tribe also is battling the state over water quality standards on the river, with the Penobscot joined by the federal government in arguing that Maine must enforce stricter environmental regulations to protect the tribe’s sustenance fishing rights.
Meanwhile, the Passamaquoddy have fought the government over tribal access to the lucrative Down East elver fishery.
Tensions were exacerbated in April when Gov. Paul LePage’s rescinded a 4-year-old executive order that said the tribes would be consulted on state decisions that affect native people.
In rescinding the order, LePage stated that all tribal people, lands, resources and government structures fall under the jurisdiction of the Maine state government, which the tribes on Tuesday said was an affront to their sovereignty.
The LePage administration on Tuesday reiterated its commitment to tribal sovereignty, but criticized tribal leaders.
“Efforts by the governor on behalf of the state of Maine to promote collaboration and communication with the tribes have proved unproductive because the state of Maine’s interests have not been respected,” a statement from the governor’s office said.
In a written statement, Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, urged the representatives to reclaim their seats.
“The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people will always have a place in the Maine House,” he said. “I’m surprised and concerned to see Rep. Mitchell and Rep. Dana withdraw from the Legislature. I am personally committed to working with them and those they represent to ensure their voices are heard in the House chamber.”
Mitchell, however, said that the tribes’ decision had been made. He said that in the future, officials chosen by the Penobscot Nation to work with the state of Maine will consider themselves to be ambassadors of a separate and equal nation, not as nonvoting members of the Legislature.
“If we come back, it will be on our terms,” he said.
The Houlton Band of Maliseets will continue to send its delegate, John Henry Bear, to the Legislature.
Bear said Tuesday that while the Maliseets “understand and support the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy,” his band was staying the course because it has too much at stake in the current session. Bear is currently shepherding several bills, including one to allow the tribe to operate a casino in northern Maine.
“The Maliseets are taking a different direction, and pursuing economic development, jobs and revenue generation for 1,500 Maliseets in northern Maine,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.