LEWISTON — The chief of Maine’s largest Native American tribe said Thursday that its relationship with state government was at an all-time low.

“I don’t know that it’s ever been good, but right now it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said in a presentation at the Lewiston Public Library’s Great Falls Forum.

Francis spoke on the deteriorating relationship between his tribe and members of the Legislature and Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

He said state government’s ongoing failure to recognize the tribes as sovereign and independent prompted his tribe and the Passamaquoddy tribe to recall their tribal representatives from the Legislature in May. 

It was the first time in 200 years that the tribes would be without a voice in the Legislature. While some saw the move as a protest, Francis said Thursday it was far more than a symbolic gesture.

Francis said the 1980 federal Indian Land Claim Settlement Act created a unique legal relationship between the tribes and the state, but the full intent of the federal law has never been fully embraced by the state.

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“This modern-day treaty was intended to enhance the sovereignty of the Maine tribes and promote self-governance, but it has failed miserably,” Francis said.  He said support for tribal sovereignty is also found in the U.S. Constitution, federal law, executive orders and numerous court rulings.

“Of course the reality for the Penobscot Nation since we entered into that treaty has been less than full respect for that sovereignty,” Francis said. “So while our native nations have been making great progress, we are still very much under attack by outside corporate and government interest in our internal affairs.”

He said that interference has wreaked havoc on tribal members, including allowing the degradation of their fishing waters and impairing their economy. Francis gave several examples ranging from the state exerting control over the elver fishing industry to the federal and state governments siding with the paper industry on who should set pollution control standards for the Penobscot River, a body of water that Penobscots consider their sovereign territory.

“For Indian people, when we discuss sovereignty we are talking about cultural survival and who we are as a people,” Francis said. “We have to take responsibility for ourselves and our resources. Our right to do so must be recognized because when others make these decisions for us, it never turns out in a positive way.”

Francis detailed the extensive functions of his tribe’s government, including a range of public services such as health care and housing, cultural and language education, judicial, and agencies to protect natural resources and guard the environment that almost all civilized governments have. He said it has been a 30-year struggle to establish those functions.

“We are finally starting to thrive again,” he said. “All of these activities are the result of self-governance and self-determination we are providing for ourselves and our community because, despite other people’s perceptions or misconceptions of who we are and whatever stereotypical images they may hold of tribal people, our communities do not want handouts, nor are we interested in being perpetual victims.” 

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He said resolution to the discord depends largely on how others in state government choose to answer a simple question: “Who gets to decide the things that affect our lives?” Francis said.

“Although it seems like the answer to that question should be crystal clear to everyone, until it is, I’m afraid our vision of walking together to a better tomorrow, for all people, even those on different paths, can never be fully realized.”

Francis told members of the audience the tribes would now work to establish ambassador-like representation at the Legislature, but a tribal return to participating in the state government remains largely uncertain.

He later said tribal members have considered the possibility of running candidates for elected offices in state government, even possibly for governor, as a means of gaining political clout from within. Even if unsuccessful, campaigns by tribal members could be another way to elevate tribal issues and concerns, he said.

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