Maine Tribes Boldly Declare Their Sovereignty

Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation

Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation

AUGUSTA, MAINE – Tribal Chiefs from four tribal communities in Maine gathered outside the State House in Augusta this morning, Tuesday, May 26, 2015, surrounded by a large contingent of tribal members and allies. Following their arrival, a delegation of tribal members was sent into the House Chamber where legislative representatives from both the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe were called out of session by a directive from tribal leaders. Then, in an historic move, the tribal legislative representatives from each tribe read prepared statements, severing their ties with the State of Maine and relinquishing their seats in the State Legislature. After reading the statements, the two tribal representatives stood and left the chamber, followed by numerous supporters from both sides of the aisle.

“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 Tribe at Pleasant Point, during a rally following the event outside the State House.

Chief, Kirk Francis, from the Penobscot Nation announced: “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.”

Penobscot Chief, Kirk Francis, addresses the crowd of tribal members, friends, and allies that gathered to support tribal sovereignty.

Penobscot Chief, Kirk Francis, addresses the crowd of tribal members, friends, and allies that gathered to support tribal sovereignty.

Tribal officials acknowledged that this was the first time in nearly two centuries that they had abandoned diplomatic protocols in their dealings with the Maine state government.  The Penobscot Nation has been sending representatives to the State House since 1823, the Passamaquoddy since 1842. Yet, recent actions by Maine’s government have prompted the Tribes to seek alternate paths for securing the cultural and traditional integrity of their communities, and to foster solid economic growth and well-being for tribal members.

The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet Tribes each have one allotted seat in the House of Representatives. Though they are able to submit bills and sit on policy committees, they are not allowed to vote.

Penobscot Legislative representative, Wayne Mitchell, leads the crowd exiting the House chamber.

Penobscot Legislative representative, Wayne Mitchell, leads the crowd exiting the House chamber.

Matthew Dana II and Wayne Mitchell, the respective Passamaquoddy and Penobscot representatives in the House, thanked their colleagues in the legislature who stood and walked out with them; acknowledging that representatives from both parties have been good friends and allies to the tribes and to them personally. The relationship between the tribes and state has deteriorated significantly in recent years, due to clashes over tribal fishing rights, judicial jurisdiction and environmental standards. There have been some who have drawn a parallel between the Governor’s attempts to open Maine to environmentally destructive industrial practices, such as mountain top mining and tar sands production, and the recent attacks on tribal sovereignty and water rights. Whatever the cause, the relationship has become deeply strained and many of the state’s recent actions are being viewed by the tribes and their allies as little more than bully tactics.

The Penobscot are currently suing the state over an attack on cultural fishing rights in the Penobscot River. And, the Passamaquoddy have been engaged in an ongoing battle with the state over the Tribe’s traditional elver fishery.

In April, Governor Lepage rescinded an executive order that acknowledged the State’s obligation to consult with the tribes on state decisions that affect Native people. This was a direct slap in the face to the tribes. It was also an impotent legal statement, since the state has obligations under both federal and international law to enter into meaningful consultation with the Tribes, and to gain their free, prior and informed consent on all decisions that impact tribal peoples.

Maine 4In the April executive order, LePage claimed that all tribal people, lands, resources and government structures fall under the jurisdiction of the Maine state government. These statements fly in the face of tribal sovereignty, and they reek of archaic termination language from days gone by.

In a show of support to the Tribes, Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, urged Tribal representatives to reclaim their seats, stating:

“The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people will always have a place in the Maine House, 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.”

Passamaquoddy Representative, Matthew Dana II (right) stands by as Chief Fred Moore (left) explains the Tribe's position.

Passamaquoddy Representative, Matthew Dana II (right) stands by as Chief Fred Moore (left) explains the Tribe’s position.

Penobscot Representative Wayne Mitchell, responded by saying “the Tribe’s decision had been made.” He went on to say that in the future, officials chosen by the Penobscot Nation to work with the state of Maine will be ambassadors of a separate and equal nation, not nonvoting members of the Maine Legislature.

Mitchell concluded by saying “If we come back, it will be on our terms.” Representatives of both tribes stated that they would be working closely with one another to determine their immediate next steps and long term path forward.

Chief Francis said that the tribes have been forced to take action to protect their traditional, cultural practices and to secure a future for their people against increasing termination style policies and practices by the state of Maine. In a conversation following the event he said: “We are now going to focus on Nation Building. Unfortunately, the process that we have been engaged in with the state has inhibited our ability to move forward, risking the stability and security of our current and future generations. We have an obligation to take care of our people.”

Sherri Mitchell (Wena’ Gamu’ Gwasit) was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian Reservation. She is an Indigenous Rights attorney, writer and teacher. She’s been an adviser to the American Indian Institute’s Healing the Future Program and the Spiritual Elders and Medicine Peoples Council of North and South America. Sherri speaks around the world on issues related to Indigenous rights, nonviolence, and the traditional Indigenous way of life. Sherri is the Director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization committed to protecting Indigenous Rights and the Indigenous Way of Life.

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Photos by Sherri Mitchell

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