ORONO, Maine — The Indian Land Claims Act of 1980 has been inappropriately interpreted by the state of Maine to restrict the sovereignty of Wabanaki tribes, said speakers at a panel discussion Thursday night at the University of Maine.

About 80 people attended the conversation about the history of Wabanaki treaty-making with American governing bodies and the implications in today’s debates about fishing and gaming rights. Tribal scholars likened the land claims act to a modern-day treaty. The Wabanaki tribes are the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy.

Panel member Gail Dana-Sacco, an assistant research professor at UMaine and member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, recalled being a young woman in 1980 when her tribe voted on the settlement agreement, which would later result in the Land Claims Act.

“We went into this room,” she told the audience. “All the tribal members were invited. There was a table right here on the side, stacks of papers. Before we left the room, within two or three hours there was a vote, whether or not we were in favor. I bring that forward to bring up a question about decision making.”

Dana-Sacco, aware that some in the audience had been involved in negotiating the Indian Land Claims Act, was careful to state that she was telling the story from her perspective and urged the audience to participate in the conversation.

“I’m not here to criticize anyone who was involved in that process, but I’m raising the question, what that kind of agreement is that?” she asked.

A response to her question would come later when Reuben Butch Phillips, who was selected by the Penobscot Nation to negotiate with the state of Maine over the act in 1980, stood up to speak.

“Almost every single day since 1980, I regret not pressing some of the issues that we are now fighting that pertain to the Land Claims Act,” he said. He explained that he had been mandated by the tribe to negotiate for a return of land to the tribes that had been lost, for a monetary settlement and for a guarantee that the state of Maine would no longer control the tribes.

“I’m speaking as a negotiator,” he said. “I’m telling you we were under a tremendous amount of pressure.”

The pressure to reach an agreement came from the fact that President Jimmy Carter, who was supportive of the tribes, was up for reelection that year and his prospects did not look good. Tribal representatives felt they needed a settlement before he was voted out of office.

As a result of the Settlement Act, Maine tribes received $81.5 million, some of which was designated to buy back land. But the state and the tribes have interpreted the terms of the agreement differently, particularly fishing rights.

“They call this something we gave up, and we say we never gave it up,” said Vera Francis, referring to the salt water fishery. Francis is the Passamaquoddy economic development planner and also participated at Thursday night’s panel.

“We are a marine based culture,” she said. “We require 100 percent access to the land and to the water so that we can know and be who we are.”

The state is attempting to infringe on that access by limiting the amount of elver fishing the Passamaquoddy tribe can do. A bill approved by the House and Senate on Tuesday establishes the percentage of the statewide catch limit that will be reserved for Maine’s Indian tribes. Another bill, approved last week, requires all elver fishermen to use a swipe card that would keep track of recorded landings in a database managed by the Department of of Marine Fisheries.

Mark Chavaree, a citizen and legal council of the Penobscot Indian Nation, and Andrea Bear Nicholas, chair of the studies of aboriginal cultures of Atlantic Canada at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, also spoke at Thursday’s event.

Nicholas opened the discussion with an overview of the history of Wabanaki-treaty making, which Chavaree added to by explaining the tribe’s legal relationship with the state and federal governments.

“We had the right as free people to come together and create our own form of government, and that’s what we did,” said Chavaree. “And that form of government is where our authority comes from.”

Toward the end of the night, Dana-Sacco, with a hand on her heart, thanked Phillips for his comments. The entire room stood up, faced Phillips and applauded.

Nell Gluckman

Nell is the education reporter for the Bangor Daily News, but she will be helping out the political team by covering the 2nd Congressional District election this year. Before joining the Bangor Daily News...