The sun shines on Maine's Capitol in this spring file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The Maine Indian Tribal State Commission (MITSC) was created by the Tribes and the State of Maine during the government negotiations that settled the Waponahki land claims after the Tribes had pled and won their cases in federal court. To enable the settlement, two laws were enacted: the Maine Implementing Act (MIA) and the companion federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA).

MITSC alone was tasked with the continual “review of the effectiveness of the Maine Implementing Act and the social, economic and legal relationship between the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Nation and the State,” and then charged to develop recommendations for improvement.

For forty years, the Commission issued numerous reports, made considered recommendations and funded independent evaluations. Collectively, this evidence was brought before James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues, who gleaned the following summary: “[The] Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and Maine Implementing Act create structural inequalities that limit the self-determination of Maine tribes; structural inequalities contribute to Maine tribal members experiencing extreme poverty, high unemployment, short life expectancy, poor health, limited educational opportunities and diminished economic development.”

Last year, MITSC held an ex-officio position on the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Implementing Act. The Task Force breathed life into the possibility that common ground for mutually beneficial structural change could be found. In January, the Judiciary Committee received that task force’s report, and legislation was then crafted to amend the Implementing Act ( LD 2094) and to develop dispute resolution and consultation frameworks ( LD 2118). Both of these bills are the product of respectful government to government negotiation. They also stand as a “trust” that the state and the Tribes can act to fix the significant hardships caused by the Acts.

Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma that agreements and promises made to Indian people must be honored. In one section, Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the Court, discusses the dangers inherent in giving states authority over Indian Tribes, writing, “A State could encroach on the tribal boundaries or legal rights Congress provided, and, with enough time and patience, nullify the promises made in the name of the United States… It would also leave tribal rights in the hands of the very neighbors who might be least inclined to respect them.”

Congress gave considerable power to the State of Maine in 1980, along with an understanding that nothing would be done to harm Waponahki culture and that Waponahki sovereignty would be respected. Over the past 40 years, there have been state court decisions, administrative actions and laws that, returning to Gorsusch’s majority opinion, “encroach on the boundaries or legal rights” of the Waponahki. Over the next few weeks, given the energy and good faith of current efforts, the legislature should seize the opportunity to amend this law and honor the foundational understandings of the 1980 negotiations.

Through an analysis of word formation (morphology), Algonquian linguists Jessie Little Doe Baird, Newell Lewey, Gabe Paul and Roger Paul describe the sophisticated concepts embedded in Algonquian understandings of law and leadership. Waponahki languages hone closely to each other. For example, in both Passamaquoddy and Maliseet, the word for law is “Ntolotahkewakonum” and the word for leader is “Sakom.” Both carry the letter “m” at the end of the possessive forms of the words — “my law” or “my leader,” indicating inalienability. In other words, neither the law nor the leader can be separated from the people. The words for both law and leadership reflect a trust based on reciprocity. These principles of responsibility, respect and reciprocity are important principles to call into this conversation.

We also strongly urge Gov. Janet Mills and the legislature to continue productive negotiation with the goal of passing laws that recognize the benefit in reciprocity — laws that reflect commitment to an interdependent relationship most inclined, drawing again from Justice Gorsuch’s recent opinion, to respect the rights of the Waponahki. The State of Maine has a second chance — indeed we all do — to preserve this opportunity and the possibility of mutual respect, mutual responsibility and true reciprocity.

Jamie Bissonette-Lewey is the outgoing chair of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission. John Banks and Kevin Hancock are the acting MITSC co-chairs.