AUGUSTA, Maine — Tribal leaders in Maine say they’re surprised, and a bit confused, by Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to rescind an old executive order proclaiming a special relationship between the tribes and the state.

It’s unclear what prompted the move, but some tribal officials believe it may be an act of retribution.

The executive order, released in August 2011, states that Maine’s Indian tribes would be included in discussions over laws and policies affecting native peoples. But last week, LePage rescinded that executive order against the backdrop of a contentious dispute over state water quality standards.

The sudden change of heart arrived in the form an email from the governor’s office to Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis.

“I’m a little bit — well, a lot — confused by it,” Francis says. “I don’t understand where it came from.”

LePage’s new order explicitly rescinds the older proclamation that created a special relationship between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.

The new order declares that the tribes are sovereigns in their own right and that the relationship between them and the state amounts to a “relationship between equals with its own set of responsibilities.”

But Francis said the document then takes a turn, and declares all tribal members and their government structures, lands and natural resources subject to the laws of the state.

“This does nothing more in terms of providing for anything productive but throw fuel on an already very emotional and tumultuous relationship,” Francis said.

Three years ago, tribal leaders thought that LePage’s special relationship language could signal a turning point in a mercurial relationship with the state that was punctuated by frequent disputes involving water, hunting and fishing rights. But Brenda Commander, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, said LePage’s goals for tribal consultations on issues that affected them never actually played out.

“The consultation would let us sit down together and talk about how that would affect us and I really didn’t see that happening,” Commander said.

Francis agrees, saying that LePage’s decision to rescind the special relationship isn’t all that great of a loss.

“I will say that’s continued to be a work in progress and hasn’t really met the goals and objectives of the executive order,” Francis said.

Tribal leaders say they believe the administration’s decision to rescind the executive order may have been prompted in part by recent statements by officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who say Maine must approve stringent pollution standards to safeguard the water quality on tribal lands. Maine has rejected the EPA’s demands and the Penobscot Nation has sued the state over its assertion that the tribe does not have control over the water quality of the Penobscot River.

Passamaquoddy Tribal Chief Fred Moore said LePage’s executive order is an act of retribution.

“It’s really a retaliation for the EPA letter to Maine DEP concerning Maine’s water quality standards and the fact that they impact Passamaquoddy sustenance fishing rights, and those rights are a federally protected right,” Moore said.

Tribal leaders say that LePage’s latest executive order also points blame at the tribes for failing to contribute to consultations in a way that respects the state’s interests, which baffles Francis.

“I’m not sure what we’ve done to make this relationship unproductive except to try and work for some basic indigenous and human rights for Wabanaki people and to have that respected,” Francis said.

Leaders from all four tribes are expected to meet Friday to discuss a possible response to the governor’s executive order. The governor’s office did not respond by 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.