The bridge to Indian Island, where about 430 Penobscot tribal members live, is pictured on Aug. 9, 2018. Credit: Greta Rybus / Pine Tree Watch

Maine’s attorney general acknowledged that the state owed tribes millions of dollars.

It was 1942 and the Maine Legislature was considering a bill that would have attempted to strip Penobscot and Passamaquoddy women of tribal membership if they married non-tribal men.

The conversation in a committee room soon evolved into a broader discussion of the “Indian situation.” Asked by a legislative advisor whether there was money Maine owed the tribes, Attorney General Frank Cowen said the amount was “some millions.” He said it was “fairly apparent” in the state’s history that tribes “​​were robbed left and right.”

The candid testimony is among the newly unearthed documents cited in a report released this week by Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations. The transcripts reveal how lawmakers brushed off obligations to tribes and laid out goals of assimilation and buying back land effectively aimed at eliminating their presence.

The report’s authors, including Donna Loring, Gov. Janet Mills’ former tribal adviser, argue it amounts to an official policy of fraud and cultural genocide. Their work comes into the public eye while the Legislature advances landmark measures overhauling the state-tribal relationship.

“We really meant this to be a historical document just telling the simple truth about things, no matter how hard it is to take,” said Loring, who is also a former Penobscot Nation tribal representative.

A student leaves school on Sept. 19, 2014 afternoon on Indian Island. Credit: Brian Feulner / BDN

The report, titled “One Nation, Under Fraud: A Remonstrance,” is written by Loring, lawyer Joseph Gousse and Eric Mehnert, chief judge of the Penobscot Nation. It takes its name from events in 1833, when Penobscot members protested the sale of four townships that had been reserved for the tribe under a treaty signed shortly after Maine achieved statehood.

Timber was an economic powerhouse for the new state, with the townships near the convergence of the east and west branches of the Penobscot River eyed for harvesting. The state said the tribe agreed to sell the land for $50,000. Members said that was not true.

Dozens signed onto a protest document sent to the governor and other key officials saying that the purchase was carried out under circumstances of “fraud [and] deception” and the deed should be nullified. The Legislature rejected the protest and the tribe’s claim to the land.

It is one of several historical episodes cited in the report to illustrate what the authors identify as a “history of fraud” in the state’s dealings with the tribes.

Among the most striking examples, which the authors characterize as the “Nixon tapes” of Maine’s approach toward tribes, comes from the newly unearthed 1942 transcripts.

Following the bill discussion during which Cowen had told lawmakers the tribes were owed millions, a legislative committee commissioned an analysis of the state’s obligations to tribes. It found several cases — some dating back more than a century — in which the state broke promises to the tribes by either failing to pay for land supposedly purchased from them or not giving them access to land they had rights to under treaties.

That analysis also identified instances of state mismanagement of money intended for tribal trust funds. The Legislature nevertheless decided in cases where it owed the tribes, it could pay the money back without interest or adjusting for inflation.

Loring, Gousse and Mehnert write that the decision to pay far below what tribes were owed effectively amounted to “another robbery.” But the financial decisions are only a part of what makes the transcripts Nixonian in nature, they argue.

Within the 1942 debate about what is financially owed to the tribes, lawmakers also laid out goals of assimilation, buying land from reservations and limiting intermarriage. In those moments, the authors wrote, the state “admitted to genocidal acts and intentions.”

Although the authors in summation characterize Maine’s historical relationship with the tribes as an effort of “isolation, control and elimination,” the final pages of the report put forward a framework for the state to begin to remedy relations with the tribes, including restoring language of original treaties to the Maine Constitution, adding a constitutional officer for tribal relations and adopting an accord with the tribes recognizing their sovereignty.

Such steps would go further than Maine has attempted to go so far to reshape relations with the tribes. Loring said she hoped lawmakers would give the recommendations “a serious and very thoughtful look,” noting that agreements with tribes in other states could be a model.

Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana speaks at a press conference on April 22, 2021, at Binette Park on the Old Town riverfront. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Although the report had been in the works for years, it was released by the Permanent Commission the same week that lawmakers voted to advance several key bills concerning tribal issues, including legislation to remove restrictions on tribal sovereignty dating back to a 1980 agreement that effectively allowed the state to treat tribes like municipalities.

The detailed accounting of the tribes’ dealings with the state provide important context for the current legislation as well, said Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana, who co-chairs the commission, including the circumstances that pushed tribes to sign onto the 1980 settlement they now seek to modify.

“It wasn’t the fairest process, to put it lightly,” she said.