The Indigenous of Maine Claim Sovereignty*
By Alex Freeman
Due to Governor Paul LePage launching direct political and environmental attacks against the Penobscot, Micmac and Passamaquoddy tribes of Maine, leaders of those tribes have recalled their representatives from the state legislature and are asserting their sovereignty from the State of Maine.
“The Maine Indian Land claims Settlement act has failed and we cannot allow ourselves to continue down the path,” Chief Francis said.
“We’re saying it’s a failed social experiment.”
In August of 2011, Governor LePage signed an Executive Order recognizing a “special relationship” between the sovereign State of Maine, and the sovereign tribes within the State. In this order, the Governor instructed all State agencies to include a tribal liaison, whose role would be to facilitate communication and direct policy in all areas of State jurisdiction in such a way as to include the voice and interest of native peoples. The Order instructs that
“the State and Tribes should work together as one,” and Tribal interests should be heeded when developing policies and procedures “on matters that significantly or uniquely affect those tribes.”
In April of this year, LePage rescinded that Order. The new Order maintains that native tribes in Maine retain their sovereignty, but holds that they now have a “relationship between equals with its own set of responsibilities,” yet declares that tribal lands, forms of tribal governance and natural resources controlled by the native tribes are subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the State of Maine. The takeover of lands was prompted by an EPA letter to the State, and claims that lack of Tribal participation in “the State’s interests” required the usurpation of Tribal sovereignty. The Letter, in fact, actually supports the Tribal position, as the Tribal standards of environmental protection are much stricter than those of the EPA or the State of Maine. Those close to the Penobscot Tribe tell The Fifth Column that LePage threatened to sue the EPA over the proposed new regulations, leading the Agency to back down. LePage’s Order, then, becomes a direct political attack against the Tribes in affront to their sovereignty and an effort to exact more control over the land by the State of Maine.
Even though Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis and his Tribe couldn’t have been “happier” with the EPA ruling, the State of Maine blamed the Tribe for poor water quality and dissolved its sovereignty over the land and resources. This comes in spite of a Penobscot lawsuit over fishing rights in the Penobscot River and another legal battle between the State and the Passamaquoddy Tribe over rights in other fisheries in the region, as well as Maine’s already stringent water quality standards. Initially “a little bit — well, a lot — confused” by the new Executive Order, Chief Francis declared,
“We have gotten on our knees for the last time, from here on out, we are a self-governing organization, focused on a self-determining path.”
Francis spoke outside of the Maine Statehouse on May 26 in a rally celebrating the severing of diplomatic ties between the Tribes and the State. He was joined by leaders of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, but not the Houlton and Maliseet Tribes, who cite too much of a vested financial interest in the outcome of several bills currently pending. Matthew Dana II and Wayne Mitchell, just prior to the rally, issued statements on the floor of the legislature announcing the separation, and abandoning their pro forma seats in the state government. Each Tribe was allotted one seat in the legislature, where they were allowed to submit and discuss bills, but denied the right to vote. According to the Tribes, this is the first time since 1842 that a Native Tribe was not present in the legislature.
“We have gone to great lengths to demonstrate good faith and cooperation, only to be lied to,” states Passamaquoddy Chief Fred Moore.
Meanwhile, LePage maintains in one breath that it is the interests of the State of Maine that have not been respected, yet in another breath has stated that he would veto any Tribal bill that reaches his desk from the legislature. Urged to rejoin the legislature by Speaker Mark Eves, former Representative Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation told supporters that the decision to leave non-voting positions in the legislature had been made, and that any return would “be on our own terms.” In the meantime, any interaction between the Tribes and the State of Maine will take place as separate and equal nations, not colonialized subservients to an occupying government that repeatedly refuses to respect Tribal interests.
The unique break in diplomatic ties signals the reassertion of full sovereignty for the Tribal Nations. The precedent and political implications could spread to other tribes throughout North America, and serve as a model for natives and non-natives alike as state and federal governments continue to enact laws violating the rights of the People, and others to protect the environmentally and economically destructive interests of corporations. The reassertion of sovereignty, more immediately, may protect much of the land and water in Maine from fracking, Tar Sands production, and mountain top mining. More importantly, the Tribes are declaring that they no longer consent to the State to “define our sovereignty or culture or to interfere with our self-governing rights.”