Belfast celebrates its first 'Indigenous Peoples Day'

Panel: Maine known for 'disgraceful' relations with indigenous population
By Jordan Bailey | Oct 11, 2016
Photo by: Jordan Bailey Sherri Mitchell speaks during an Indigenous Peoples Day panel on tribal-state relations. Panelists Jamie Bissonette-Lewey and John Banks are seated.

Belfast — The city celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples Day over the traditional Columbus Day weekend Oct. 7-10, with several events that culminated in a panel discussion of Maine's poor tribal-state relations.

Belfast was first in the state of Maine and one of at least 26 cities in the nation to make the switch from Columbus Day and formally designate it Indigenous Peoples Day. The change resulted from a citizen petition that prompted the City Council decision Dec. 15, 2015.

People packed Belfast Free Library’s Abbott Room the afternoon of Oct. 10, as speakers Jaime Bissonette-Lewey, chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, John Banks, director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Indian Nation, and tribal law specialist Sherri Mitchell presented a cutting view of the state's failures to honor its agreements and follow federal law regarding indigenous rights. Mitchell has worked at the Department of the Interior and for the Maine Attorney General's Civil Rights Division.

Banks said that at a Sept. 19 roundtable discussion at the University of Maine at Orono, Interior Department Assistant Secretary Larry Roberts said while most states are moving toward more cooperation with tribes, Maine is the only state moving in the opposite direction. Mitchell quoted Roberts as saying to Alaskan tribal leaders, "You think you have problems, you should see what's going on in Maine." She added that colleagues at the Department of the Interior law office often asked her who negotiated “this terrible deal,” referring to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

Banks described contradictions between Maine's dealings with recognized Indian tribes in the state and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. He said the Maine Legislature adopted the declaration but does not abide by Article 26: "States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources [which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired]. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned."

He said Maine is the only state in the nation with no consultation policies, and thus no mechanism to resolve problems, between Maine's four recognized tribes and state government.

One source of hope for Banks is the success of the Penobscot River Restoration project, a collaboration between the Penobscot Indian Nation, seven conservation groups, hydropower companies, and state and federal agencies that protects 11 species of diadromous fish.

Bissonette-Lewey told of her positive experiences during a recent visit to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota, where tribes are fighting to halt construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. She described a decolonized environment where money has no place because there is nothing to buy. Instead, she said, there is "an expectation of sharing and the presence of resources."

"Visitors are offered food, drink — and then you're offered a job," Bissonette-Lewey said, "because everyone has a place."

Mitchell spoke about the history of subjugation of native peoples from Pope Nicholas V's papal bulls in 1452 and 1455, which authorized the enslavement of Africans and non-Christians in the New World and formed the basis of the doctrines of discovery, to the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson V. M'Intosh, still a foundation of law cited as precedent all over the world. In that case, the court gave exclusive title of lands to the "discoverer," or first European nation to dominate the area. Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, the court used the Christian law of nations and doctrines of discovery as the basis for its precedent-setting decision.

Maine's disgraceful record in tribal relations began in 1875, Mitchell said, when an amendment to Maine's constitution prohibited a section on the state's obligations to the tribes from ever being published, though the obligations are still in force.

Another failure, she said, is state officials' ignorance of tribal law, which she attributes to lack of training in the subject. The Supreme Court has set canons on interpretation of treaties which state that wherever there is ambiguity in agreements between the state and tribes, those ambiguities should be decided in favor of the tribes, and interpreted as Indians believed it meant at the time of drafting. In Maine, Mitchell said, all ambiguities in the Settlement Act are resolved in the state's favor.

Other sources of frustration for Maine's tribes, she said, include additions and changes made to the Settlement Act after the "final" document was approved by the tribes, the recent interpretation of the Settlement Act as ceding rights to sustenance fishing in the Penobscot River, and the state's refusal to participate in any meaningful way in The Maine Indian Tribal-State commission.

"Our anger and frustration is because we are well-versed," Mitchell said.

A proud day for Mitchell was May 26, 2015, when tribes removed their delegates from the state Legislature because, she said, it showed that they are now standing up to be dealt with as a sovereign nation rather than as the state's symbolic representatives.

Other events in the celebration of the newly named holiday included a "circle of sharing" of stories and poetry on indigenous themes at the Steamboat Landing gazebo on Sunday, Oct. 9, and a presentation on the Passamaquoddy people and the St. Croix River at Belfast Free Library later that day. The library is also hosting Indigenous Peoples Month on Film, with four films to be shown throughout October.

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Jordan M Bailey
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Jordan Bailey has been working for The Republican Journal since 2013. She studied philosophy at Boston College and has experience in marine science education and journalism. She lives in Belfast.


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