AUGUSTA, Maine — Only one of Maine's Native American tribes plans to send a representative to the Legislature next year, down from two this year, as two top Democrats promise to address strained state-tribal relations.
The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians has declined to send a tribal representative to the Legislature next year, joining the Penobscot Nation, which pulled its tribal representative in 2015. The Passamaquoddy Nation also withdrew its tribal representative in 2015, but the tribe elected to send a representative back to the Legislature in 2016.
Maine's sole tribal representative next year will be Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Nation, who didn't respond to requests for comment.
"It's difficult as a sovereign nation when we have a state government that pushes back on things continually," said Houlton Band of Maliseets Chief Clarissa Sabattus, whose tribe could decide to send a tribal ambassador to meet with state and federal governments.
The departure of another Maine tribal representative comes amid increasingly tense relations between tribal nations and the state over tribal sovereignty, tribal gambling and fishing and clean water rights. In 2015, outgoing Republican Gov. Paul LePage — whose office didn't respond to request for comment — revoked his 2011 executive order aiming to promote cooperation between Maine and tribes.
Several leaders of Maine's four federally recognized tribes said they hoped Democratic Gov.-elect and Attorney General Janet Mills and incoming Democratic Attorney General Aaron Frey fulfill their promises to meet with tribal leaders, unlike past politicians.
"The relationship? There really isn't one at this point," said William Nicholas, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township Reservation. He said he hopes Mills' administration respects tribal sovereignty and his tribe's wishes to be left alone.
Rep. Henry Bear, who previously represented the Houlton Band of Maliseets, said he's tired of the state's "paternalistic" attitude toward tribal nations. He led unsuccessful efforts this year to have Maine's high court consider allowing casinos on tribal land.
The controversy dates to 18th-century treaties and a 1980 settlement of tribes' claim to perhaps two-thirds of Maine's lands.
That 1980 law made Maine's relationship with tribes unlike that of most other states.
Under the law, the tribes agreed to be subject to Maine's laws and jurisdiction, except for "internal tribal matters" and hunting and certain fishing rights on tribal land. Congress has to specifically state whether a federal law applies to Maine tribes.
Mills' office has argued in court that means Maine has environmental regulatory authority over tribal lands.
Tribal leaders and liberal and environmental groups have criticized Mills for her role in the state's lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over Obama-era rules that heightened water quality standards in rivers fished by tribes. A federal judge Monday allowed EPA officials to make "substantive changes" to water quality standards, while keeping in place the stricter standards for now.
Mills' office also defended Maine in the Penobscot Nation's unsuccessful federal lawsuit claiming ownership over the Penobscot River. This spring, Mills called for a review of a federal court ruling that backed tribal fishing rights in Washington, which was later upheld.
Mills, who has authority to decide whether to legally represent the state, has said she respects tribal sustenance fishing rights.
But her office has argued the state's water quality standards are already high and should apply the same to all Maine waters. Mills' campaign spokesman Scott Ogden stated she wants to work with tribes on issues including economic development, health care and removing "offensive" mascot names.
"The governor-elect believes that there is much that can be accomplish by working together and engaging in communication rather than litigation," Ogden stated.
Tribal leaders said the underlying issue is the wording of the 1980 law, which they said has far-reaching effects.
Houlton Band of Maliseets Chief Sabattus said the wording means tribal members need a state permit to hunt on tribal lands. Aroostook Band of Micmacs Chief Edward Peter-Paul said the law, passed before his tribe was federally recognized in 1991, hinders his tribe from accessing economic incentive programs available to tribes nationwide.
Incoming Attorney General Frey said this week he has promised to start a public dialogue with tribal leaders about their concerns over the 1980 law.
"We need to figure out where the conversation went wrong," he said.