PLEASANT POINT, Maine (AP) — Eighty-one years after a neglected tribal water supply caused a devastating outbreak of typhoid fever and a century after the state outlawed spearfishing of the salmon that fed their ancestors, Native American tribes who trace their history back millennia say their trust in the government of Maine is at an all-time low.
What has long been an uneasy peace between the state government and the tribes who desire sovereignty has degraded with clashes on issues ranging from fishing rights to new casinos — a dispute so vitriolic that Gov. Paul LePage withdrew an executive order that sought to promote cooperation between the two sides and some of the tribes abandoned their seats in the legislature.
"This marriage between the tribe and the state is little more than a shotgun wedding between unwilling partners," said Fred Moore, the chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point. "There's always value in reconciling, but that requires both sides to want to come to the table."
Moore said he wants a productive relationship, and will continue working for one, but he is quick to add that "the honeymoon is over" between the state and his tribe, which had lived in Maine for thousands of years before the first European settlers arrived. The Maine tribes' turbulent history with the state, which ranges from the 1934 disease outbreak to voters' defeat of a 2003 proposal to open a casino in southern Maine, is documented by the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.
Moore said the Passamaquoddies are finished "going to Augusta asking for things."
The state's recognized tribes — the Passamaquoddies, the Penobscot Nation, Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians — are only a small portion of the state's population, about 8,000 people from a total population of about 1.3 million. Their legislative representatives are permitted to introduce bills, but their votes are not counted. And doubts linger about whether they will participate in Maine's coming legislative season after the last one proved tumultuous.
In April, LePage rescinded a 2011 order directing state agencies and departments to create policies recognizing the sovereignty of the tribes, among other things. His spokesman said efforts to collaborate and communicate with the tribes were "unproductive" and state interests were not being respected.
In May, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies abandoned their seats in the Legislature. A day later, with the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, they issued a joint document saying they are no longer recognizing the authority of state officials to interfere with their "self-governing rights."
The next month, a pair of key bills — one seeking shared management of fisheries and another concerning a proposed tribal casino in northern Maine — failed, furthering the divide.
LePage did not return a request for comment. State Rep. Walter Kumiega, a Deer Isle Democrat who sat on the legislative panel that killed the tribal fishing bill, said he and other legislators are "always willing" to negotiate with the tribes.
"It's always a tricky thing, whether they are subject to our laws or not," Kumiega said.
The sovereignty struggles in Maine mirror those of American Indian groups around the country.
In South Dakota, members of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe that wanted to open a marijuana resort burned its crop this month due to fears of a federal raid. Tribes dug in for a fight against the government about the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would have crossed tribal lands, but was rejected by President Barack Obama. And murals depicting the lynching of an American Indian in a former Idaho county courthouse have been the source of a disagreement between tribes and the University of Idaho over whether they should be displayed or covered up as offensive.
The Maine tribes are descendants of the Algonquian-speaking Wabanaki peoples who knew their homeland as "Dawn Land" long before it was called Maine. Some of the tribes say they are willing to keep negotiating, even if their leaders doubt the state's willingness to do so.
Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians chose not to withdraw from the Legislature when the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes pulled their representatives. Henry Bear, the tribe's representative, said he'll continue working for tribal economic development opportunities in the coming legislative session, including more control of commercial fishing.
But Brenda Commander, the Maliseet tribe's chief, said she doesn't have high hopes. She said the state hasn't shown a willingness to help the tribes grow commerce.
"Going into this new year, I'm not feeling too positive," Commander said.
Moore agreed, but he added that the tribes and state can't exist completely separate of one another.
"Tribal sovereignty is not about isolation," he said.