January 17, 2020
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Maine tribes want Congress to review state’s actions, take fresh look at settlement act

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Members of Maine's Native American tribes rallied outside the State House on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, after tribal representatives in the House of Representatives resigned from their seats over conflicts with state government and Gov. Paul LePage.

BANGOR, Maine — Maine tribal leaders are calling on Congress to take a fresh look at the 35-year old Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act to determine whether state officials are misinterpreting and misusing the agreement.

A series of longstanding disputes between the state and tribes over issues ranging from water rights to gaming came to a head Tuesday, when the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes withdrew their representatives from the Maine Legislature. They cited concerns about state government’s apparent lack of respect for tribal sovereignty as the reason. It marks the first time in nearly two centuries that the tribes haven’t sent envoys to the Maine state government.

The next day, tribal leaders held a news conference in which they called on Congress to start an inquiry into the settlement act and how Maine state officials have used it to argue their views in disputes over sovereignty, application of laws and authority.

Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis said during a recent interview that the “restrictionist view” of the settlement act was never intended by Congress and that “after nearly 40 years, any agreement deserves a full and open review.”

“Until that gets done, we’re just going to focus on doing our business as we see fit,” Francis added.

The federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was signed into law in 1980. The law aimed to avoid contentious and costly legal disputes between the tribes and the state over land and water rights in the future.

In return for the $81.5 million in federal money — the largest settlement of its kind at the time — the tribes dropped their claim to 12.5 million acres of land (about two-thirds of the state) and agreed to abide by most state laws and provide services similar to a municipality. The Aroostook Band of Micmacs entered a similar settlement in 1991.

The act also has been used to deny economic development efforts, such as casinos, and was interpreted to exclude the tribes from having jurisdiction to enforce the Violence Against Women Act, tribes argue.

“There needs to be clarification of the act from an impartial party,” said Chief William Nicholas of Passamaquoddy Indian Township, arguing that the state’s interpretation and use of the act to this point has “had negative effects on the tribes.”

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. Several tribes have butted heads with the state over gaming proposals in recent years.

Tensions were exacerbated in April when Gov. Paul LePage’s administration 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 federal government acts as a sort of trustee for tribes in the United States, and has “moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust” toward Indian tribes, according to federal court decisions. It’s the federal government’s role to step in when states impede on the rights of tribes, Francis argued.

The governor’s office said that LePage’s efforts to “promote collaboration and communication with the tribes have proved unproductive because the state of Maine’s interests have not been respected.”

Nicholas said he has met only once with LePage, and that the tribe requested that meeting.

It’s unclear who would spark a congressional inquiry or how.

In February, Nicholas was among the tribal officials who delivered letters to Maine’s delegates in Congress, outlining concerns about how the act has been used and interpreted, and calling for an investigation. The tribes requested the inquiry again on May 27, when representatives of the Penobscots, Passamaquoddy and Micmacs signed a declaration calling for a review of the settlement act and state actions.

Letters also were sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Representatives of the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs did not return messages requesting comment.

Maine’s congressional delegates in emails late last week lamented the breakdown in relations between the state and the tribes, but none would say publicly whether they would help or support the push for a congressional inquiry.

“Both of us are concerned about the recent breakdown in the relationship between the state and the tribes and hope that areas of agreement can be found through continued discussions between tribal and state officials,” Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said in a joint statement. “For our part, we will continue to meet regularly with tribal representatives to talk about economic opportunities and identify areas of cooperation. We remain committed to these regular conversations.”

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin said he has “a good relationship with the Penobscot Nation, Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Passamaquoddy tribes,” and that he hopes the tribes and state can “work out their differences as soon as possible.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s spokesman also said the representative has a strong relationship with the tribes.

“Congresswoman Pingree knows the leaders of the tribes are very thoughtful about these issues and they wouldn’t have taken their decision to withdraw their representatives from the Legislature lightly,” Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said in an email. “She hopes that relationships at the state level will improve; meanwhile she will continue to work with them on any issues that have federal involvement and work to bring funding to programs on tribal lands.”

Wabanaki leaders say they’ll continue to push for an inquiry.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

BDN writer Mario Moretto contributed to this report.

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