The Penobscot Nation is formally vacating a seat the tribe has held in the Maine Legislature for more than 150 years and, instead, plans to select an ambassador to work with the state and federal governments.

More than a mere title change, the switch from non-voting state representative to a full-time “government relations ambassador” is a symbolic and historic shift that reflects the tensions between state officials and leaders of Maine’s federally recognized Indian tribes, most notably the Penobscots and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Tribal leaders contend that state officials have repeatedly failed to respect the tribes’ sovereignty and violated their right to self-government on issues ranging from sustenance fishing to domestic violence prosecutions.

“We really started to look at the tribe’s relationship with the state but also what we are trying to accomplish” in Augusta and Washington, D.C., said Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation. “We are a sovereign tribe with our own government. Is it productive to sit there in a non-voting role watching tribal bill after tribal bill not get approved?”

Passamaquoddy tribal leaders could not be reached for comment this past week, so it could not be determined whether they, too, are formally vacating their seat in the Legislature. However, neither the Passamaquoddy nor the Penobscots have participated in the Legislature since their representatives withdrew in protest in May 2015.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said he was saddened to hear that the Penobscot Nation did not plan to retake its seat, adding he had personally reached out to both tribes prior to the 2016 session.

“When they walked out that day from the House floor, it was very disappointing and I said then – and I say now – that we want them as sitting members of the Legislature,” Eves said. “This ultimately is a decision up to the chief and the tribal council. But I think it is just very disappointing … that they felt this was not an environment that they could work productively in.”

The Penobscot Nation first sent a representative to the Maine Legislature in 1823, followed by the Passamaquoddy Tribe in 1842. No other state legislature has such an arrangement with Indian tribes; however, the relationship has been tempestuous at times.

Tribal representatives can serve on committees, introduce bills and speak on the House floor but cannot vote. An effort in 1939 to give Indian representatives full speaking and voting rights failed and, two years later, lawmakers ousted the tribal representatives altogether. Their status was gradually restored, and in 1975 tribal representatives were once again given seats and the ability to speak during floor debates.

Francis said the ambassador will serve more of a diplomatic role and be the tribe’s primary liaison with state and federal officials. Both the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes have devoted significant time to cultivating stronger relationships in Washington, D.C., as they clashed with state officials over sovereignty issues.

The withdrawal from the Legislature is the latest development in the gradual deterioration of state-tribal relations playing out in the State House, at courthouses and occasionally on Maine rivers.

In May 2015, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddy withdrew their representatives to the Legislature to protest what one tribal official described as state attempts to perpetuate a “guardian-to-ward relationship” with the tribal nations. The tribes’ representatives also did not participate in the 2016 legislative session. A representative of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians continues to serve in the Legislature. The state’s fourth federally recognized Indian tribe, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, has never been granted a tribal representative to the Legislature.

A day after the withdrawals, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Micmac leaders approved a declaration saying that they “do not recognize the authority of the State of Maine, its Governor, Legislature or Courts to define our sovereignty or culture or to interfere with our self-governing rights.”

Tribal leaders also called for a congressional inquiry into “the actions of Maine that have resulted in a diminishment of our rights as federally recognized, sovereign Indian tribes and of the adverse impacts upon our cultures, rights and resources.”

Francis said tribal-state relations have not improved much since.

Last fall, Penobscot leaders squared off against Maine Attorney General Janet Mills’ office in federal court in a lawsuit over sustenance fishing and whether the tribe’s reservation includes the waters of the Penobscot River as well as tribal land. The Penobscots lost that lawsuit despite the legal backing of the U.S. Department of Justice but have since appealed.

Francis said the tribes have devoted significantly more time and energy to cultivating relationships at the federal level, with significant success. In another closely watched case, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disapproved water quality criteria for waters on several waterways after determining they were inadequate to protect tribal members who eat more fish than the average Mainer because of sustenance fishing rights. Mills’ office responded by filing a complaint in federal court seeking to overturn the EPA decision.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe, meanwhile, had a high-profile altercation with the Maine Department of Marine Resources in 2013 over tribal members’ access to the tightly regulated – and highly lucrative – elver fishery. And the tribes have repeatedly accused the LePage administration and Mills of ignoring provisions of the federal Violence Against Women Act allowing tribal prosecutions of non-tribal members for domestic violence.

The various tribes have also fought unsuccessfully for years to persuade state lawmakers – as well as Maine voters – to authorize a casino or other gambling facilities on tribal land.

“There have been dozens of decisions and policies … that have really hampered this relationship,” Francis said.

Francis said the new Penobscot ambassador, who will be selected by the chief and approved by the tribal council, will likely spend a significant amount of time in Washington, D.C. That will allow the tribe to continue to cultivate relationships within federal agencies and Congress as disagreements with the state continue.

“I think it is critically important to our tribe that we are getting the same trustee-based protections (from the federal government) that every other tribe in America gets, no more and no less,” Francis said. “That’s what we are fighting for.”

The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians did not withdraw its representative and plans to stay engaged in the Legislature.

“We are down there, invited by the government of Maine,” said Henry John Bear, the Maliseet representative since 2014. “It is quite an honor … and our tribe and tribal council decided to go in a different direction” than the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes.

Bear said the Maliseets, who did not receive a seat in the Legislature until 2012, support the Penobscot decision to appoint an ambassador as they work on the same issues of economic development and improving the health and livelihoods of tribal members.

“The goals of being equally respected, and our sovereignty being recognized and respected by (the state), will continue to be important for the Maliseets and the other tribes,” Bear said.