In recent months, the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission (MITSC) has been active on a number of issues. Our Native American Unit attorney Paul Thibeault is a member of the Commission.
The Indian nickname and mascot controversy
MITSC has played a key role in educating the public in Maine about the issue of offensive “Indian” nicknames and mascots. Last August, after consulting with the leaders of the Wabanaki tribes, MITSC wrote to the Wiscasset School Board requesting that the high school stop using the “Redskins” nickname for its sports teams. Members of MITSC made a presentation at a school board meeting and efforts were made to establish a positive dialog between the tribal communities and Wiscasset. Through many community meetings and much reporting by media, residents of Wiscasset as well as people around the state learned a lot about the history of the “Redskins” issue in Maine. It turns out that Wiscasset had played a central role in tragic historic events. Back in the 1750's a colonial garrison at Wiscasset was the actual site where “scalp hunters” would register to get cash payments (bounties) from the colonial government of Massachusetts for killing and capturing Wabanaki people, including women and children. In the end, the Wiscasset school board voted to terminate the use of the Redskins nickname at the end of the current school year. A school mascot committee eventually voted to adopt “Wolverines” as the new nickname for the Wiscasset High School sports teams. As a result, there is now only one high school in Maine that has not given up the Redskins nickname, Sanford High School. A community process has begun that hopefully will lead to the adoption of a new nickname in Sanford.
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
In December 2010 the United States government announced its support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (See related front page article on UNDRIP ). At the present time, all over Indian Country in the United States, questions are being asked about what impact the adoption of UNDRIP by the U.S. may have on Indian tribes, especially in the areas of tribal self-determination, protection of natural resources, and the relationships of the tribes with the Federal and State governments. In Maine, the Tribal-State Commission has decided to study UNDRIP and issue a report concerning the potential impact of UNDRIP on the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the Maine Implementing Act.
Federal Laws Passed Since the Settlement in 1980
The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) says that any federal laws passed after the date of the Maine Settlement that affect the application of State laws to Indians do not apply in Maine unless Congress specifically says so. As a result, many laws passed since 1980 by Congress for the benefit of Indians do not apply in Maine. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is just one example. The result of this part of MICSA is that since 1980 the Tribes in Maine have been on a different track from other Indian Tribes around the country in terms of new federal laws that are intended to benefit Indians. Tribal leaders in Maine have stated that their tribal communities have been seriously and unfairly harmed by this part of MICSA. The Tribal-State Commission has decided to review the federal laws passed by Congress for the benefit of Indians since 1980. MITSC will try to determine the impact that these laws could have if they applied in Maine, including possible benefits for the State of Maine as well as for Indians.
Maine Legislation Concerning the “Wesget Sipu”
There is a group in Aroostook County that is seeking legal recognition as an Indian tribe, separate from the four tribes in Maine currently recognized as Indian tribes by the federal and state governments. They refer to themselves as the Wesget Sipu, or the Fish River Tribe. They have a website that says: “Wesget Sipu is a Native American Tribe of Mi'qmak and Maliseet from the St. Johns Valley in Northern Maine.” According to the website, to become a member of Wesget Sipu one apparently needs to provide “verifiable genealogy” that reflects “Native American Ancestry with ties to the St. John River Valley.” These membership requirements appear to be unclear, as pointed out by MITSC Chairperson Jamie Bissonenette in recent testimony. Three bills concerning the Wesget Sipu were considered in the Maine Legislature this year. One would have included the “Wesget Sipu - Fish River Tribe” in Native American tuition waivers in the University of Maine system, the Maine Community College System, and the Maine Maritime Academy. That bill did not pass. Another bill would have reserved 25 State of Maine moose hunting permits for the “Wesget Sipu Tribe.” That bill also did not pass. The third bill, submitted by Passamaquoddy Representative Madonna Soctomah, would remove the Wesget Sipu from an existing law concerning free lifetime hunting, fishing and trapping licenses. It would clarify that only members of the four recognized Tribes are eligible for free licenses as Native Americans. That bill was passed and Governor LePage signed it.
A spokesperson for the Wesget Sipu has recently claimed that the Wesget Sipu have already been recognized by the State of Maine as an Indian Tribe. He also announced that the Wesget Sipu are seeking federal recognition as an Indian tribe. MITSC was asked by the Maine Governor's Office and members of the legislature to comment on the legislation concerning the Wesget Sipu. After conducting research and conferring with tribal leaders, MITSC decided to oppose the proposed laws concerning tuition waivers and moose permits. MITSC has recommended that any references to the Wesget Sipu be removed from existing Maine statutes. MITSC has said that the mention of the Wesget Sipu in the free license law is in conflict with the Maine Implementing Act.