SCARBOROUGH — On Dec. 23, 1975, a federal appellate court ruling in Boston established that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had illegally dispossessed the Passamaquoddy Tribe of its aboriginal territory through a 1792 treaty. Without the required federal consent, the treaty was void, meaning that the tribes of Maine could claim an estimated two-thirds of the state.

In 1980, federal and state laws were passed that retroactively approved the contested land transactions and established a uniquely complicated legal relationship between the tribes and the state and federal governments. The ensuing legal entanglements that persist threaten to dismantle any hope of achieving equity for the indigenous peoples of Maine.

Indigenous peoples worldwide have in common a singular status among marginalized populations, having been dispossessed and disenfranchised as a matter of law and public policy.

While one could argue that other minority populations have been similarly treated, only indigenous peoples still battle legal and political complexities that fail to fully recognize inherent tribal sovereignty and self-determination. It’s time to critically examine the legacy of institutionalized policies and practices that effectively deny health, justice and human rights to indigenous peoples.

Oppressive policy, protocol and laws accord a higher value to settler state economic and political interests and keep indigenous peoples subordinate. Where tribal-state relations have a long legacy, as in Maine, indigenous peoples’ struggle may be exacerbated by an antagonistic climate with roots in the historical guardian-ward relationship.

Last year, the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission found that legislators and the state Attorney General’s Office had bypassed a process that would have required tribal approval of the passage of three saltwater-fisheries laws. The lack of effective conflict resolution mechanisms that give equal weight to tribal and state interests exacerbates inequities.

This year, following a break in diplomatic relations, in which the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot recalled their tribal representatives to the Maine Legislature, they were joined by the Micmac in calling upon the U.S. “to convene a congressional inquiry and review 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.”

As well, United South and Eastern Tribes called for a tribal, state and federal inquiry to address “unsolved and unprosecuted killings of Wabanaki people in the State of Maine and to produce a report with recommendations to address past abuses and implement future policies that will foster fair and just relations … .” Federal, state and tribal governments remain responsible for the integrity of intergovernmental relationships.

Rebuilding Native nations still trapped in colonial structures requires careful scrutiny of what those structures actually produce and whether indigenous peoples and their intergovernmental relationships are well-served by them.

Self-determination and human rights demand government and social organizations that are responsive to all of the people. Because of the impact of widespread colonization, indigenous societies today do not necessarily reflect these principles.

The governmental structures imposed through federal and state laws are designed not to strengthen these communities but to weaken them, providing an entrée to powerful economic interests that seek to alienate the territory remaining under indigenous control. Persistent pressure to give up land, languages and territorial rights undermines the nascent process of rebuilding institutions required for strong, healthy and self-sufficient indigenous societies.

The application of indigenous principles and values to the conduct of governmental affairs constitutes an essential step in the decolonizing process. Applying the essence of tribal values, principles and protocols disrupts the destructive colonial legacy of ineffective tribal government systems, which enables exploitation and contributes to persistent social inequities and ill health.

Indigenous languages reflect a tribal culture upon which systems of governance can be reconstituted, reframed, rebuilt and reconstructed with integrity. Tribal governments must be re-formed to ensure the long-term survival of culturally distinct Native nations.

Extraordinary measures – including the repeal of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement acts and the re-invention of tribal governments on indigenous principles and values – should be considered to right continuing injustices and restore opportunity for the indigenous peoples of the region to become self-sustaining. Done right, we might actually be able to celebrate a true beginning of equity and peaceful relations.