Politics & Other Mistakes: Civil wrongs

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By the time you read this, the Maine Legislature and the state’s governor might have come to their senses and granted the Wabanaki people their full rights.

Also, the Russians invading Ukraine will have thrown down their arms and surrendered. Large crowds of bigots will have been struck by a sudden revelation that there’s no reason to hate and fear gay and trans people. Cold fusion will be a reality. And health nuts would have stopped trying to persuade people to eat kale.

Of all these lovely possibilities, granting sovereignty to Indigenous people seems the easiest to achieve and the least likely to happen. Easy because across the United States, over 500 other tribes have already achieved that, and the world hasn’t come to an end. Unlikely because some Maine politicians (looking at you, Gov. Janet Mills) have an almost pathological obsession that granting the same rights here would result in all manner of disasters that haven’t happened anywhere else.

Al DiamonState House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross has sponsored a bill that would allow the Passamaquoddys, Penobscots, Maliseets and Mi’kmaqs to benefit from most federal laws passed since the signing of the 1980 Indian Land Claims Settlement. That act excluded the Maine tribes from any future changes approved by Congress unless such measures expressly included them. Since Washington routinely doesn’t pay much attention to minority groups in Maine, there have been, over the intervening years, lots of improvements made available to all Native Americans except the ones who live in this state.

Fixing that seems reasonable — unless you happen to be part of the Mills administration. Then, it’s a legal abomination. Just ask the governor’s lawyer, Gerald Reid.

“I just don’t think there’s any way that ordinary Maine citizens could read this legislation and have any idea what laws are being repealed,” Reid told a legislative committee considering the bill. “That is a fundamental element of constitutional due process.”

It is? Then how come nobody can agree on what the 2nd Amendment means? Or the Civil Rights Act? Or local loitering ordinances?

An awful mess of laws, even carefully crafted ones, are subject to interpretation by the courts. That may not be an ideal way to run a government, but it’s the reality of our system. The Wabanaki can probably suffer through it as well as anyone else.

None of this is to say Mills won’t consider some sort of change to the status quo. But any such alterations in the law have to be small and gradual. Because anything else might disrupt the Multiverse, and we’d have dozens of costumed weirdos claiming to be Spider-Man.

Instead, the governor wants all involved parties (by which she means the tribes and a bunch of people who have only the most marginal connections to the tribes) to go through painful rounds of negotiations on every minor point. At some date in the distant future (when there’s peace in Ukraine and every home is powered by tiny cold-fusion furnaces), this will produce what Mills’ spokesman Scott Ogden told the Portland Press Herald would be an agreement filled with “clarity and certainty, while avoiding confusion, litigation and unintended consequences.”

In other words, Mills is willing over time to grant the Wabanaki little bits and pieces of their rights, so long as they’re willing to endure endless sessions meeting with selfish business interests, small town clunkheads and assorted racists who regard them as interlopers in their private domains.

This isn’t how civil rights are supposed to work. They aren’t doled out to well-behaved minorities like giving candies to children who agree not to use kitchen implements to perform surgery on the cat. When it comes to basic liberties, handing out stale tidbits of permission is a lousy reward.

There’s no way to craft legislation to grant the tribes full sovereignty that guarantees there won’t be any matters that have to be settled through the courts. It’s occurred fairly frequently in other states, and mostly those matters have come to sensible resolutions. There’s every reason to think the same thing would happen in Maine.

It probably will. But don’t expect to live to see it.

After long and difficult negotiations with customer service, my email is again functioning at [email protected].

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