The big difference between how Maine’s Native Americans and the rest of the state’s population govern themselves is the latter group has an easier time doing a bad job of it.
That’s because Indigenous people have to abide by rules set by Other people, while Other people only have to worry about their own stupid rules.
Both institutions suffer from leaders plagued by factionalism, corruption, and rampant idiocy. Both squander money, fail to address serious issues, and waste time on petty squabbles. Neither offers a particularly shining example of the supposed advantages of the democratic form of government.
For these reasons, the state’s tribes deserve to have the Legislature grant them full sovereignty.
Under such an arrangement, Maine’s Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet would be subject to federal, but not state, law. If that sounds radical, keep in mind that virtually every other tribe in the United States is governed in exactly that way. To date, they have not done a worse job than Portland, Maine; Flint, Michigan, or the entire state of Florida.
“This is about the tribes being on equal footing with other tribes in the country,” Maulian Dana, the Penobscot tribal ambassador at large, told the Maine Sunday Telegram, “and healing the relationship with the state of Maine.”
That relationship was established by the 1980 Indian Land Claims Act, which granted the tribes millions of dollars to buy land in return for giving up their righteous claim to historic ownership of most of the state. It also bound the tribal governments into a deal with the state that was pretty much the same as that between the state and municipalities.
In other words, the state government had the upper hand. The settlement was, like nearly every other treaty the tribes had ever signed, a bad one for them.
Sure, they got a bunch of property, but they could only use it in ways that met the approval of whatever town or unorganized territory where it happened to be located. While tribes across the nation were building casinos, Maine’s Indigenous people were limited to doing some logging.
In my hometown of Carrabassett Valley, the Penobscot are the largest landowner, controlling nearly half the land. But perhaps “controlling” is the wrong word. When the tribe proposed an extensive plan for housing development (which this area desperately needs), the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board (mostly white guys) said no.
When the tribal sovereignty bill was introduced in the Legislature last year, the same Carrabassett selectmen (motto: If We Weren’t Shortsighted, We’d Have No Sight At All) testified against it. That prompted the tribe to close its land to all recreational uses, dealing a crippling blow to snowmobilers and hunters, which are major contributors to the local economy.
If the sovereignty bill ever wins approval, it won’t make the Carrabassett selectmen more astute, but it might make the Penobscot more amenable to ignoring their dopiness.
Gov. Janet Mills, who’s had her own long and contentious relationship with the tribes, is trying to head off full sovereignty with a competing bill that gives Maine’s Native Americans more control over taxes, criminal justice, and a very limited slice of the gambling pie in the form of mobile sports betting. The tribes appear willing to accept that deal as a small step forward while insisting they still want the full sovereignty bill – which Mills will almost certainly veto if it passes.
But even the less-extensive measure faces serious opposition from casinos in Oxford and Bangor, which want the sports wagering for themselves and oppose anything that looks like competition. Their unlikely allies come from the religious right, which views any expansion of gambling as sinful and still hasn’t given up hope of converting the tribes to Christianity.
Underlying all the politicking is that thing that usually impedes progress in the state of Maine: fear of change. If the tribes can do whatever they want on their own land, who is to say they won’t behave in the same ridiculous ways white people do.
Those folks own a Central Maine Power Co.-style monopoly on stupidity. It’s time to let the Native Americans in on that action.
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