Tribal-state relations are at loggerheads, again. Which side is to blame for the breakdown?

“The battlefields are different now – they are not the deep woods and the edge of settlement, but the courthouses and the media – where one side – the State of Maine – sees an end of conflict, and the other side – the tribes – sees ongoing restlessness and disenchantment.”

Neil Rolde, “Unsettled Past, Unsettled Future: The Story of Maine’s Indians,” 2004

“We just want to be able to conduct our affairs without outside interference. In every aspect of our lives we need to control our destiny if we are to continue to survive as Passamaquoddy people. Until the State of Maine can see and understand this there will be no peace, no harmony, no balance, no future.”

Margaret Dana, “At Loggerheads -The State of Maine and the Wabinaki,” 1997

In the heart of Indian Island, the Sockalexis Bingo Palace looms like an aircraft hangar. On bingo weekends, up to 1,600 players are bussed onto the reservation for two days of high-stakes wagering.

As the biggest building on the Penobscot reservation, the palace dominates the landscape. But what happens inside dominates the political landscape, as tribal officials complain everything the tribes do is prejudiced by gaming.

“We’re a lot more than that here,” says Chief Kirk Francis. “We’re not some Elks Club here. We’re not sitting in a dark room, talking about slot machines all the time. We’re trying to protect the things we have here already.”

What the tribes have now, and what they want from the state, has led into maybe the sourest period of tribal-state relations in decades. There are empty feelings on Indian Island about what’s considered as Augusta’s mistreatment.

“We recognize the value of having a solid relationship, but as it stands now, we’re in a parental relationship,” says Francis. “We have to go back to two sovereigns.”


The obstacle to this sovereign equality is now 28 years old – the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act.

Tribal-state relations strain against the act, which saw tribes receive $81.5 million in 1980 (some $230 million now, adjusted for inflation) to settle land claims to almost two-thirds of the state, while also exempting Maine tribes from further federal actions.

The most notable of which is the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which paved the way for the explosion of tribal gambling when enacted in 1986.

In July 1986, the Penobscots – flush with claims cash – loaned the Mashantucket Pequot tribe in Ledyard, Conn., $800,000 to open a bingo parlor on their reservation land.

Today, Ledyard is home to Foxwoods, one of America’s biggest casinos, and a shining symbol of where gambling gains can elevate a tribe. Meanwhile, Maine’s tribes have continually tried since the early 1990s to find support for a casino, by amending the settlement act to specifically allow gambling.

It hasn’t worked. After Gov. John Baldacci’s predictable veto earlier this year of another bill allowing slots at the bingo palace, Francis blew his stack and threatened to sever tribe-state ties.

“You have consistently blocked every gaming initiative proposed by our Tribes that would provide actual dollars to support critical tribal services,” Francis wrote the governor April 28. “My People have had enough with the State of Maine.”

The gambling bill was only one of three tribal bills that failed. The others were:

• LD 2221, a raft of changes to the settlement act developed by a tribal-state working group, which included tribal exemptions to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act and greater representation for the Houlton Band of Maliseets.

• LD 2036, a transfer of 714 tribal trust acres in Argyle into reservation status, which failed amid concerns the property could be sited for a casino. Craig Sanborn, a tribal housing official, maintains the land is sorely needed for housing, as Indian Island’s last buildable lots are developed.

These setbacks have put the tribes and the Judiciary Committee, which reviews tribal issues, at loggerheads.

Who speaks?

At the center of this stalemate is the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, a quasi-governmental agency that has evolved itself into the agitator for tribal causes before lawmakers.

MITSC’s historic role has been mediator and adviser. Now, Paul Bisulca of Oxford, the chairman of MITSC and a Penobscot from Indian Island, is upfront about transforming the agency into an advocacy arm for Maine’s tribes.

But perhaps too upfront.

MITSC’s approach garnered little traction with legislators; its aggressive representatives, Bisulca and John Dieffenbacher-Krall, MITSC’s executive director, has been cited as having done more harm than good.

The MITSC-Judiciary relationship further crumbled when the committee voted 10-0 (plus Rep. Donna Loring, who represents Penobscot Indian Nation) to cut MITSC’s budget by $38,000. MITSC had budgeted $103,000 for 2008, the bulk of which – $87,500 – was slotted as salary for Dieffenbacher-Krall.

With the cuts, Dieffenbacher-Krall’s salary is projected at $53,786 for the 35-hour/week position. Chief Francis, in his letter to the governor, said he couldn’t “communicate the depth of his disgust” about Judiciary’s cut.

Committee relations are now so poor, MITSC requested a different committee assignment during a meeting with Gov. Baldacci, House Speaker Glenn Cummings and Senate President Beth Edmonds last Wednesday.

Dieffenbacher-Krall says another approach was decided. “If anything, they [the governor and leadership] want MITSC to work much more closely with the Judiciary Committee,” he wrote in an e-mail.

David Farmer, the governor’s spokesman, echoed this sentiment. “The tribes had some hard feelings about the Judiciary Committee, and we took that very seriously,” he says. “The problem is, where do you go?”

Changing committees isn’t solving problems, Farmer adds, just putting new people to work on them.

Edmonds feels the complicated relationship between MITSC and the state is the source of the problems. Unlike tribal governments, she says, the state has a legislative process to follow.

“The governor, MITSC and leadership were all on the same page,” she said about the past session. “Maybe the committee was not brought up to speed sufficiently.”

‘Slap in the face’

This is news to the committee’s chairs, Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, and Rep. Deb Simpson, D-Auburn.

For two years, Simpson co-chaired the working group that recommended the settlement act changes. Hobbins served on the legislative committee on land claims in 1980. Both are frustrated with fractious tribal-state relations, and the perception their committee is the problem.

Simpson brokered a compromise on LD 2221 on the tribal exemption to the FOAA – instead of amending the settlement act, which would have failed, she offered to make the exemption statutory.

One catch: changes to the settlement act require approval from tribes and state. A statutory change is legislative, and could be undone without tribal approval. Tribes vehemently disagreed with this, and bill support faded.

“I haven’t worked on anything harder than finding a solution that would have worked,” says Simpson. “The statutory change could have given [tribes] the protection they asked for. Now everybody wants to point fingers.”

A fraction of LD 2221 was enacted, however, to give MITSC representation to the Houlton Band of Maliseets.

The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot governments, which needed to approve this change, have since rejected it.

Hobbins calls this a “slap in the face of Deb Simpson.” The central problem, he adds, is that the tribes abrogated their absolute sovereign nation status in the settlement act.

And, whether real or perceived, continual fears about casino gambling shadow every tribal-related matter. This was particularly true about Argyle, says Hobbins.

“Within the Legislature, there were individuals that felt this was an end-around for gaming,” he says. “Gaming has been very lucrative, and brought a lot of tribes into prosperity,” he says.

Is it all about gambling?

The next bingo weekend at the Sockalexis Bingo Palace starts July 19. Players can win up to $10,000 on one card, if they stick around. Since Hollywood Slots opened in Bangor, some ditch bingo early for the machines.

Bingo is the largest contributor to the tribe’s budget, but it is second to forestry as the biggest tribal business.

Maine tribes purchased hundreds of thousands of acres with settlement funds; now, there isn’t likely a mill in Maine that operates without tribal wood. And the land claim is still paying dividends.

The Penobscot Indian Nation received $40 million in 1980; millions remain in trust funds, according to Francis. But in 2008, it isn’t enough. “The cost of operating a government is not cheap,” he says.

Hence gambling, which – like the bingo palace – overshadows everything on Indian Island. Tribal-state successes, like sustainable forestry, wildlife habitat protection, environmental standards and the restoration of the Penobscot River watersheds, are swallowed against casino rhetoric. Francis, for one, thinks gambling is a stopgap.

“[It] is not a long-term economic solution,” he says. “Gambling is a short-term solution for seed money.”

But even gambling seed money needs the support of the governor and voters, which has yet to materialize. The Legislature has supported Indian slots, only to see the governor flourish his veto pen, time and again.

When asked directly whether the tribe would bring in slot machines, regardless of law, he doesn’t directly answer.

The tribe has “aspirations in gaming,” says Francis, and is examining “all of its legal options.”

Beyond gambling, the tribes and state are finding common ground. Farmer says the governor will re-introduce the changes to the settlement act, the Argyle land swap and reforming MITSC’s duties, when the Legislature returns in January. The governor’s office is also seeking to restore the $38,000 cut from MITSC.

But the hard questions about sovereignty might only be answered by what happens with gambling.

What the tribes feel about this is clear.

“We’re operating within our sovereign rights to improve economic development,” says Francis. “We know what no means, but it is not no for everybody…our plan is to proceed in a slots direction.”

Given current relations, this could be whether Maine approves of them, or not.

“We’re going about our business,” says Francis. “Not worrying about what Augusta is doing.”

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