I participate in a statewide network of Quakers who have tracked issues of concern to the Wabanaki people (i.e. Maine Indians) for three decades.

Clearly, a major shift in tribal-state relations took place recently when tribal leaders declared their independence from existing relationships, including the withdrawal of tribal representatives from the Legislature.

The governor and most legislators cite the Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 as the defining framework for the relationship, but they interpret that law to mean that all tribal people, lands, resources and government structures fall under the jurisdiction of the Maine state government. Tribal entities are seen as equivalent to “municipalities” – no different from any town in Maine.

Wabanaki leaders are not seeking to abrogate the 1980 Settlement Act but to insist upon a full and correct interpretation of it as against a flawed interpretation by which the state has consistently sought to diminish or deny full tribal rights, customs and self-determination.

While the text of the 1980 law says that the tribes operate under state law, the same passage continues, “except as otherwise specified in this act.” A full reading of the Settlement Act binds the state to comply with long-standing treaty and legal rights granted the tribes, which cannot simply be ignored or overridden by state action.

The necessary starting point to resolve the current impasse is for the governor and the Legislature to acknowledge the traditional rights of the tribes as equal partners (rather than subordinate wards) in governance and problem-solving.

Such respectful recognition would not only be historically and legally correct but also far more likely to result in positive and cooperative responses to the many challenges facing the Wabanaki and all citizens of Maine.

James Matlack