Tribal sovereignty

Having angrily withdrawn their representatives to the Maine Legislature, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes are now calling on the United States Congress to initiate a full and open review of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which was signed into law in 1980 to resolve a lengthy and costly legal dispute over tribal claims to 12.5 million acres of land — nearly two-thirds of the state. The tribes dropped their claim in return for $81.5 million in federal money, but provisions of that settlement have repeatedly been called into question as disputes over tribal sovereignty have surfaced over the past 35 years.

Federal policy establishing tribal sovereignty — in effect, creating nations within a nation — seems to us to be fundamentally illogical. It is especially problematic here in Maine, in part because the wording of the Indian Claims Settlement Act leaves considerable room for interpretation as to when, or whether, the tribes are considered as sovereign nations, municipalities of Maine or even as business enterprises in their ongoing relationship with the state.

It is one thing when tribal sovereignty is asserted over matters that affect only tribal members or issues that begin and end within the borders of their own property. It is quite another when those matters impinge on the interests or wellbeing of non-tribal citizens in an entire state or region. Here in Maine, the tribes contend that the state’s interpretation and use of the Indian Claims Settlement Act has had negative effects on the tribes. But they seem unwilling to acknowledge that the interests of all Maine people are involved in such matters as river water quality standards, elver fishery regulation and casino proposals, all of which have generated conflict between the state and the tribes.

Whether by treaty or statute, the establishment of separate, sovereign rights for one group of people within the citizenry of the United States — however well-intended it may have been — virtually assured that conflict between Native Americans and other citizens of these United States would continue to arise.

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