Maine Native American Tribes Say Trust Is Deteriorating
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PLEASANT POINT, Me. — Eighty-one years after a neglected tribal water supply caused a devastating outbreak of typhoid fever and a century after the state outlawed spearfishing of the salmon that fed their ancestors, Native American tribes who trace their history back millenniums say their trust in the government of Maine is at a new low.
What has long been an uneasy peace between the state government and the tribes that desire sovereignty has degraded with clashes on issues such as fishing rights and new casinos. The dispute has become so vitriolic that Gov. Paul R. LePage withdrew an executive order that sought to promote cooperation between the two sides, and some of the tribes abandoned their seats in the Legislature.
“This marriage between the tribe and the state is little more than a shotgun wedding between unwilling partners,” said Fred Moore, the chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point. “There’s always value in reconciling, but that requires both sides to want to come to the table.”
Mr. Moore said he wanted a productive relationship and would continue working for one, but he quickly added that “the honeymoon is over” between the state and his tribe. He said the Passamaquoddies were finished going to the capital, Augusta, “asking for things.”
The state’s recognized tribes — the Passamaquoddies, the Penobscot Nation, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians — are a small portion of the state’s population, only about 8,000 people in a total population of about 1.3 million. Their legislative representatives are permitted to introduce bills, but their votes are not counted. Doubts linger about whether they will participate in Maine’s coming legislative season after the last one proved tumultuous.
In April, Mr. LePage, a Republican, rescinded a 2011 order directing state agencies and departments to create policies recognizing the sovereignty of the tribes, among other things. His spokesman said that efforts to collaborate and communicate with the tribes were unproductive and that state interests were not being respected.
In May, the Penobscots and the Passamaquoddies abandoned their seats in the Legislature. A day later, with the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, they issued a document saying they would no longer recognize the authority of state officials to interfere with their “self-governing rights.”
The next month, two major bills — one seeking shared management of fisheries and another concerning a proposed tribal casino in northern Maine — failed, furthering the divide.
Mr. LePage did not respond to a request for comment. State Representative Walter A. Kumiega, a Democrat who sat on the legislative panel that killed the tribal fishing bill, said he and other legislators were always willing to negotiate with the tribes.
“It’s always a tricky thing, whether they are subject to our laws or not,” Mr. Kumiega said.
The sovereignty struggles in Maine mirror those of American Indian groups around the country.
In South Dakota, members of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe, which wanted to open a marijuana resort, burned its crop this month because of fears of a federal raid. Tribes dug in for a fight against the government over the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would have crossed tribal lands, but President Obama rejected the project. And murals depicting the lynching of an American Indian in a former Idaho county courthouse have been the source of disagreement between tribes and the University of Idaho, which is leasing the building, over whether they should be displayed or covered up as offensive.
The Maine tribes are descendants of the Algonquian-speaking Wabanaki people, who knew their homeland as “Dawn Land” long before it was called Maine. Their turbulent history with the state, which includes the 1934 disease outbreak and the voters’ defeat of a 2003 proposal to open a casino in southern Maine, is documented by the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.
Some of the tribes say they are willing to keep negotiating, even if their leaders doubt the state’s willingness to do so.
The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians chose not to withdraw from the Legislature when the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes pulled their representatives. Henry Bear, the tribe’s representative, said he would continue working for tribal economic development opportunities in the coming legislative session, including more control of commercial fishing.
But Brenda Commander, the Maliseet tribe’s chief, said she did not have high hopes. She said the state had not shown a willingness to help the tribes increase commerce.
“Going into this new year, I’m not feeling too positive,” Ms. Commander said.
Mr. Moore, the Passamaquoddy chief, agreed, but he added that the tribes and state could not exist without one another.
“Tribal sovereignty is not about isolation,” he said.