AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Saying they can no longer participate in a system that perpetuates a "paternalistic attitude," two American Indian tribes abandoned their seats in the Maine Legislature on Tuesday amid clashes with Gov. Paul LePage.
The Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe said recent actions by LePage — including the withdrawal of an executive order last month that sought to promote cooperation between the state and the tribe — have broken what was once a productive relationship.
"Our hope is that someday the state will recognize us for who we are and value the tribes as sovereign partners and engage in a relationship of mutual respect. Until then we simply must decide our own future," Rep. Matthew Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe said before walking out of the House chamber with Penobscot Nation representative Wayne Mitchell.
Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, said in a statement Tuesday that that the relationship between the tribes and the state is one between equals, but argued that the tribes have not respected the interests of the state.
"The Governor had hoped his 2011 Executive Order would have improved the relationship between the State and the Tribes," she said. "Since then, the Tribes have had difficulty working together, and they have not been cooperative in working with the State."
The executive order the Republican governor rescinded had directed state agencies and departments to create policies recognizing the sovereignty of the tribes, among other things.
The tribes have repeatedly fought with the administration over a number of issues, with the most recent fight center on the use of certain kinds of fishing nets. After the state issued an emergency rule earlier this month to ban the use of the use of fyke nets to make sure the state doesn't exceed the catch on elvers — or baby eels — the Passamaquoddy Tribe said that it will continue to use them anyway. The tribe also resisted the state's effort to enforce elver fishing quotas on individual tribal fishermen last year. They eventually agreed to the quotas.
Tribal representatives aren't allowed to vote in the full House but can vote at the committee level and introduce bills. The tribes have long had representatives in Maine's Legislature — the Penobscots since at least 1823 and Passamaquoddies since 1842 — though lawmakers removed them from the House for more than three decades in the middle of the 20th century. A third tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians is maintaining its representative in the Legislature.
Several lawmakers from both parties followed Dana and Mitchell out of the chamber and joined them at a rally in the Statehouse courtyard show their support for the tribes.
House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick said he was "surprised and concerned" by their decision and pledged to continue to working with the tribes to ensure their voices are heard in the Legislature.
"The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people will always have a place in the Maine House," Eves said in a statement. "I hope they will reclaim their seats."
Associated Press reporter Patrick Whittle contributed to this report from Portland
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