There’s talk of a “new era” and restored dialogue between state government and Maine’s American Indian tribes after years of growing tensions over a host of tribal sovereignty and economic issues.
But repairing the fraught relationship likely won’t be easy given differing interpretations of Maine’s nearly 40-year-old “settlement agreement” with the tribes as well as more recent legal frictions between Gov. Janet Mills and some tribal leaders.
“I do have great hope for continued effort to reach common ground and attempt to mend the bonds between the indigenous nations of Maine and the governing entities,” Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, said during Mills’ inauguration ceremony this month. “This will take time, not an easy fix.”
Both Mills and her successor as attorney general, Aaron Frey, said they hope to improve relations with tribal leaders from Maine’s four federally recognized tribes: the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.
As a gubernatorial candidate, Mills pledged to “meet regularly” with tribal chiefs or council members and to appoint Cabinet members who understand tribal issues. On Friday, Mills said she has spoken with several tribal leaders since her election in November and plans to speak with others as her administration gets established.
“I would like to improve communications with them, of course,” Mills said on Friday. “There are a lot of things that we can work on together when it comes to health care, the opioid epidemic, when it comes to economic development and renewable energy, fisheries, tourism, agri-tourism.”
AS AG, MILLS CLASHED WITH TRIBES
Over the past decade-plus, relations between Maine state government and the state’s four federally recognized tribes have deteriorated in large part over persistent disagreement on interpretations of a landmark 1980 agreement that was intended to resolve sovereignty questions. Two years ago, tribal leaders described the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act as “fractured and broken.”
In 2015, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes withdrew their representatives to the Legislature in protest of what tribal officials said was a long history of the state failing to respect tribal sovereignty on a myriad of issues. Earlier that year, former Gov. Paul LePage rescinded an executive order aimed at improving cooperation between the state and the tribes because, he said at the time, the state’s “interests have not been respected.”
While the Passamaquoddy Tribe elected a new representative this year, neither the Penobscots nor the Houlton Band of Maliseets will seat a member with the Legislature.
As attorney general, Mills also clashed with tribal leaders in two high-profile legal cases.
The first involved the question of whether the Penobscot Nation’s reservation boundaries included the river itself or just the land and islands. A federal judge sided with Mills in ruling that the Penobscot reservation ends at the shoreline of tribal islands but also reaffirmed tribal members’ sustenance fishing rights throughout the main stem of the river.
In the second case, Mills’ office sought to block a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order that the state craft tighter water quality standards in rivers to better protect the health of tribal members who rely on sustenance fishing.
In March of last year, as Mills campaigned for the Democratic nomination for governor, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy chiefs blasted her for supporting a U.S. Supreme Court review of a fish migration case in Washington state.
“We are deeply concerned about your attacks upon tribal fishing rights at home and well beyond Maine,” Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis, Chief Ralph Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point and Chief William Nicholas Sr. of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township wrote in their letter. “Your efforts at home threaten critical clean water rules, the survival of our Native American communities, and the safety of all Mainers who depend on a clean environment.”
In an interview, Mills pointed out that, as attorney general, she was defending the state against the Penobscot lawsuit challenging tribal boundaries.
“I think it’s unfortunate that there has been all of this litigation,” Mills said. “I wish it could have been avoided.”
But the governor said her office also worked alongside tribes on numerous issues.
For instance, Mills joined attorneys general from other states in defending the Indian Child Welfare Act in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and her office helped train judges and child welfare workers in how to follow the act. Mills said she also prosecuted individuals accused of illegal dumping on tribal lands and, in a clear contrast with LePage, strongly opposes federal proposals to potentially open areas of the North Atlantic to oil drilling.
EXPRESSIONS OF OPTIMISM
Tribal chiefs and other leaders of Maine’s four tribes did not respond to requests from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for comment on the status of their relationship with the state under a Mills administration.
But former Rep. Henry Bear, who represented the Houlton Band of Maliseets in the Legislature for several years, expressed optimism about improved relations between the tribes, the Mills administration and the Legislature. Bear pointed to several bills being introduced that aim to authorize gambling on tribal lands, and to address long-standing tribal concerns about sovereignty within the 1980 settlement act.
Other bills expected to be considered this year would ban Indian mascots at schools and change the name of the Columbus Day holiday to “Indigenous Peoples Day.”
Bear said he believes the difference will be a better-informed Legislature and administration.
“I’m optimistic that all parties are moving forward better-prepared to deal with these issues,” said Bear.
Paul Thibeault, managing director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, said he was “encouraged by the positive statements from Governor Mills about the need to repair the relationships.”
A product of the 1980 settlement act, the 13-member commission includes six appointees from the state and six tribal representatives as well as a chairperson. However, the commission’s ability to carry out its mission has been “impaired,” Thibeault said, by LePage’s failure to appoint state representatives to the body.
“We join in (Penobscot) Tribal Ambassador Dana’s call to ‘mend the bonds’ between the State and Tribal governments that have been so severely damaged,” Thibeault said in a statement. “At the same time, we recognize that it will not be an easy fix and that a lot of hard work will have to be done by many people working in good faith in an atmosphere of mutual respect. It is time to roll up our sleeves and work together to finally realize the initial but unfulfilled promise of the Settlement: to create a dynamic and effective relationship between the Tribal and State governments that will benefit Indians and non-Indians in the State of Maine.”
Mills said she spoke with Thibeault last week and planned to appoint members to the commission once her Cabinet is assembled.
“We talked about how the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission could be used for perhaps some level of dispute resolution too, to avoid all of this litigation,” Mills said. “It could and perhaps should be used for that today.”
‘A GENUINE DESIRE TO LISTEN’
During her inauguration, Mills invited tribal chiefs to participate in the formal ceremony and made a reference to former Penobscot Nation Chief Joseph Attean – the tribe’s first elected chief and a guide for Henry David Thoreau during one of his visits to Maine – during her inaugural address.
“The plaque that overlooks Attean Lake – named for him – reads, ‘Rise free from care, before the dawn, and seek adventure,’ ” Mills said during her speech. “Today we rise, a new day before us, and seek adventure.”
Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s tribal ambassador, thanked Mills for opposing the use of Indian mascots by schools in Maine and for “a genuine desire to listen to me during her campaign, for insight and conversation, for laughter and for some advice.” She also spoke about “hopes of a new era, maybe, not because I’ve forgotten what’s in the past but because I am very hopeful for the future.”
Tensions linger, however, over the role Mills played as attorney general in regard to sovereignty issues.
Some tribal members are expected to testify against the nomination of assistant attorney general Jerry Reid to become commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Reid was the lead attorney for the state challenging the Penobscot Nation’s claims of jurisdiction over the waters of the Penobscot River as well as the EPA’s order for more stringent water quality standards to protect Penobscot members who rely on sustenance fishing for food.
For his part, Maine’s new, attorney general, Bangor resident and former state lawmaker Aaron Frey, has also spoken repeatedly about improving state-and-tribal relations.
“We have an opportunity to restart the dialogue in a very meaningful way with our sovereign Native Americans, with the Wabanaki Nation,” Frey said this month after being sworn in as attorney general. “That is something that I am confident that my office, working with the executive branch and working with the Legislature, can do.”