Bridge To Indian Island
Written by BDN staff
from Bangor Daily News
Indian Island, home of the Penobscot Indian Nation, is a visual metaphor for the often uneasy relationship the native peoples have with Maine. That relationship has deteriorated in recent months to the point that the Penobscots are considering severing ties with state government.
At the southwestern tip of the island, the original village is just a stone’s throw away from Old Town’s commercial district. Yet for generations, that insignificant physical separation meant significant inequity for tribe members. They lived in abject poverty and faced scorn from fellow Mainers when they left their enclave. Today the island is the perch for the native people’s efforts at reclaiming and reviving their traditional culture.
Island living also reminds the tribe that it is a nation set apart from state government; not as low on the hierarchy as municipalities, yet not as free-standing as, say, Canada.
In a recent meeting and tour for newspaper editorial writers, tribal leaders sought to show the view of Maine they see from Indian Island.
Chief Kirk Francis concedes the public perception is that the tribe’s needs were met with the 1980 land claim settlement. The settlement gave the tribe $40 million; much of that is in permanent trust and set aside for education, and some was tapped to purchase 150,000 acres of land in Maine, which is managed for logging.
"We’ve made some mistakes," but the funds have not been squandered, the chief said.
The most recent conflict with the state came when the tribe sought slot machines to help offset the loss of bingo revenues that came when Hollywood Slots opened in Bangor. Gov. John Baldacci vetoed the bill.
A bill to allow the Penobscots to develop housing in nearby Argyle was killed by the Legislature, with opponents expressing fear that the tribe would seek to build a casino there, a mistaken perception by legislators, tribal leaders say. "I don’t want our tribe to be dependent on gaming, long-term," Chief Francis said. Other economic development initiatives leaders are considering include wind power.
Health care is also a problem, with the island clinic having to ration treatment, and Indians facing life expectancy rates some 30-plus years lower than the general population.
The tribe is quite serious about moving forward on its initiatives without state oversight, Chief Francis said, even if the conflict ends up in court.
"As it stands now, it’s a parental relationship," the chief said of the tribe’s dealings with state government. Tribal leaders would prefer to bypass the state and deal with the federal government, which has institutions geared toward Indian relations.
Though a short "time out" may be appropriate, the tribe cannot achieve its goals by ignoring the state. And state officials should be responsive to the tribe’s attempts at discussing its goals.
Leaders on both sides need to set aside past hurts and work at building a new bridge between the island and the rest of Maine. That new bridge should protect the tribe’s distinct identity as well as allow the tribe to venture out into the larger world with housing and economic development efforts.
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
P.O. Box 241
Stillwater, Maine 04489