Some lawmakers joined the demonstration outside the Maine Statehouse, disheartened that Gov. LePage has obstructed the state's relationship with Maine's tribes. Photo Mark Bryant
By Ramona du Houx
Citing growing concerns about Governor Paul LePage’s lack of respect for tribal sovereignty, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes announced on May 26, 2015, that they were withdrawing their representatives to the Maine Legislature.
Rep. Matthew Dana II of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation both spoke briefly from the House floor before leaving the chamber, for the last time.
"The Maine tribes have reached a very critical juncture in our history," said Rep. Mitchell. "As sovereign nations we must find a better path forward — one that respects our inherent tribal authority and allows for all of our people to prosper in all areas of their life."
The tribal representatives joined a rally outside the Statehouse, where speeches were made and Native Indian drums played. Many other lawmakers joined the demonstration, disheartened that Gov. LePage has obstructed the state's relationship with Maine's tribes.
“We have gone to great lengths to demonstrate good faith and cooperation, only to be lied to,” said Fred Moore, tribal chief of the Passamaquoddy at Pleasant Point, at the rally held outside the Statehouse.
There are three nonvoting tribal members in the Maine House from the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Maliseet Tribe. The special Representatives can sponsor legislation relating specifically to the tribes or in relation to tribal-state land claims, as well as co-sponsor any other legislation brought before the House, but they do not cast a legislative vote, because of their unique tribal status representing only tribal members.
They are not entirely without the power to vote. The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribal representatives can sit as members of joint standing committees during hearings and deliberations, where they do cast votes, which can be very important with respect to specific legislative proposals.
The rally outside the Maine Statehouse, where it was explained why two of Maine's tribes pulled their representatives from state government. Photo Mark Bryant
Not all of the state's tribal representatives walked out of the Statehouse. Rep. Henry Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseets didn't leave. "Our chief and council have expressed total support for the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, but they're taking a different direction," Bear said.
Both other tribes said they would look internally for guidance about the future of tribal-state relations.
“We have gotten on our knees for the last time,” said Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation. “From here on out, we are a self-governing organization, focused on a self-determining path.”
“The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people will always have a place in the Maine House,” said House Speaker Mark Eves. “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. I hope they will reclaim their seats.”
Of all the fifty states in the Union, Maine is the only one that has representatives in its Legislature for its Indian tribes. The earliest record of representatives being sent from the Penobscots is in 1823 and of the Passamaquoddies in 1842.
“We regret that their rift with the executive branch was so deep that it prompted their withdrawal. They will always be welcome in the House, and it is our sincere hope they will reclaim their seats,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon of Freeport.
The rift between Governor Paul LePage and the tribes climaxed in April when the governor rescinded his own three-year-old executive order that recognized the “special relationship” between the State of Maine and Indian tribes. The order created a consultation policy for tribal input before laws, rules and policies affecting them were passed. But he's completely turned his back on that agreement.
LePage’s new executive order was issued on April 16, 2015, and is called, “An Order Respecting Joint Sovereignty and Interdependence." The name is misleading, as the document asserts the state’s dominance over the tribes — in effect denying them sovereignty, unless the tribes do as they are told by the state. And it rejects the sovereignty over tribal lands held in trust by the federal government.
“What they are saying, at the end of the day, is that we will respect your sovereignty as long as you do what we tell you. That’s not how sovereign relationships work,” said Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, in the Bangor Daily News.
Rep. Matthew Dana II of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation both spoke briefly from the House floor, before leaving the House chamber, for the last time.
The executive order should be reviewed by the Maine attorney general, concerning the sovereignty issue.
It reads: “Whereas, all tribe members, Indian nations, and tribes or bands in the State of Maine and any lands or natural resources owned by them or held in trust for them are subject to the laws of the state and to the civil and criminal jurisdiction of the courts of the State to the same extent as any other persons or lands or natural resources therein.”
“It’s really a retaliation for the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) letter to Maine DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) concerning Maine’s water quality standards and the fact that they impact Passamaquoddy sustenance fishing rights, and those rights are a federally protected right,” said Passamaquoddy Tribal Chief Fred Moore in the Bangor Daily News.
This could be considered a land-and-water grab by the State of Maine. The elvers (highly valued eel-type fish) are running again, and there has been friction between the LePage administration and the tribes over fishing rights.
Moore says the tribes will now have rely on each other to govern such issues such as control over the Penobscot River and other tribal waterways, to make determinations over sustenance fisheries, including the elver harvest.
"We have not collectively seriously considered how our people are going to feed themselves; sustenance, for example, is defined by us by the undertaking — not the disposition," said Moore.
Logically that means tribes should have control over who has access to tribal waters, but LePage disagrees, and Maine Attorney General Janet Mills is suing the federal government on behalf of the state of Maine. Mills is challenging the Penobscot Nation's position on control.
"The Penobscot River belongs to all the people of Maine, not just one tribe or one group, but all the people," said Mills.
That brings us to the question: Will Attorney General Mills even look at the validity of LePage’s executive order, which essentially tries to strip the tribes of their sovereignty?
LePage has also made it clear that he wants more land to be developed and that he wants to allow an increase of clear-cutting. Is this one way he is trying to clear-cut his way through Native American rights?
The executive order ends with a statement affirming the state’s sovereign immunity from being sued because of anything in the document.
"Native American representation in Maine legislative assembly goes back to before we even became a State in 1820. It was incorporated in the Massachusetts General Court at its inception in the 1600's. Governor Paul LePage calls himself a conservative. He has just destroyed an American tradition that is more than three centuries old. The man's a flaming radical," said historian, former lawmaker Neil Rolde.
Native American’s have been treated like second-class citizens. Often in the 1800s officials made promises to tribal leaders only to deliberately break them. Native American lands were taken away from Native people; they were forced into camps and told to forget their traditions. Their children were made to feel ashamed of their heritage and schooled in “Western ways.”
It’s took Sen. Muskie, from Maine, to start to turn the atrocities of our federal government around. Then came the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 — a historic agreement that tribal leaders said they had believed would mark the beginning of a real relationship with the state.
LePage’s executive order needs to be challenged by the people of Maine. Today, Rep. Matthew Dana II and Rep. Wayne Mitchell and their respective tribes have challenged it.