For second year in a row, bid for tribal casino blocked in Maine Senate

By Christopher Cousins, Bangor Daily News

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would have allowed Maine’s Native American tribes to open and operate a casino in Washington or Aroostook County died Monday in the Senate by a vote of 18-16.

The Senate’s vote contradicts a 114-26 House vote last Thursday in favor of the bill, which was written by the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. The two chambers of the Legislature are now at odds on the bill, which means it faces more votes but won’t be successful without attracting additional support

The bill, LD 1446, would have allowed a competitive bidding process followed by the development of a casino in Washington or Aroostook county. Bids would have been weighed depending on to what degree they would benefit Maine’s four federally recognized Indian tribes.

Rep. Henry John Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseets said Monday that given the close Senate vote against it, he is still hopeful that the bill will survive.

“I’ll be hopeful that maybe we can work an amendment and that we can find something that’s acceptable to the Senate,” said Bear, who is the only tribal representative left in the Maine Legislature since the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes pulled their representatives out of the Legislature in May.

That decision was driven by clashes over fishing rights, judicial jurisdiction and environmental conflicts, though the fact that Maine has not allowed the tribes to operate a casino — and benefit from the revenues — has been a sore spot for tribal-state relations for years. In 2014, a group of six gaming bills — three of them which would have benefitted the tribes — were all killed in a single night in the Senate.

The tribes and other casino proponents thought an opening for gaming expansion was created last year with the release of a market study that suggested the state could support one or two more casinos.

“This bill is not a bill that has come out of this legislative session,” said Bear. “This is a bill that has been in the works for decades in a continued effort to try to create jobs in a region that’s the poorest of the state.”

Meanwhile, another casino bill, LD 1280, is still awaiting debate and votes in the House and Senate. As currently written, that bill would allow for a casino in Cumberland or York County.

Maine American Indians, fishing for millennia, regroup as latest effort for state pact fades

By Patrick Whittle, Associated Press

BANGOR, Maine (AP) — Marie Harnois stands on the banks of the Penobscot River at dusk, swirling a dip net under the water, fishing for eels — something her ancestors in the Passamaquoddy tribe have done for thousands of years.

Fishing has been a way of life for Maine’s American Indians since time immemorial — “Passamaquoddy” is derived from a word that means “the people who spear pollock” — and Harnois thinks it’s past time the state government’s regulators came to the table to share management of fisheries with the tribes.

“I think the tribe should be able to set their standards however they want,” she said, alongside sisters Fawn and Eva, as she emptied wriggling baby eels into a bucket. “They’re perfectly capable of managing resources.”

Like Harnois, members of Maine’s four federally recognized American Indian tribes are regrouping just as a tribal effort to forge a fishery management pact with state regulators is faltering. The tribes proposed an ambitious bill that called for regulators and tribes to craft “memorandums of agreement” about managing marine resources.

The bill, which stemmed from recent squabbles the tribes have had with regulators about quotas and gear used in the lucrative baby eel fishery, was soundly rejected by a key state legislative committee in May, and it appears unlikely to pass if it reaches the full Legislature.

But former Passamaquoddy tribe legislative Representative Matthew Dana, who sponsored the bill and withdrew from his seat in protest last week, said he is hopeful the tribe and state can still reach agreement without passing a law. The tribes feel as though the state is preventing them from beginning an era of cooperation with a government regulatory structure with which they have frequently been at loggerheads, he said.

“I thought this was going to go somewhere, and obviously it did not,” Dana said. “We’re trying to keep the lines of communication open and hopefully meet before the start of the season next year.”

There are about 8,000 Maine residents of Native American descent, about 2,500 of whom are Passamaquoddies. The other recognized tribes are the Penobscot Nation, Aroostook band of Micmacs and the Houlton band of Maliseet Indians. They are descendants of the Algonquian-speaking Wabanaki peoples who lived in Maine before the time of the earliest European settlements. The tribes have harvested everything from lobsters to porpoises from Maine’s waters over the centuries.

In that time, their methods have changed. Oral traditions say Penobscots would fish for eels by poisoning the water with berries and plants. Today the tribes fish mostly with modern gear. The importance of fishing to the tribes’ culture, however, has never wavered, Dana said.

“We know the importance of maintaining the balance of nature and the natural systems,” he said in a presentation to a legislative committee earlier this year. “We take only what we need.”

Tribal-state relations have a long and frequently difficult history in states around the country, particularly in managing resources, but there have been recent breakthroughs. In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee this month signed a bill into law that creates a method for tribes to enter into pacts with the government to sell marijuana.

Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher is “open and committed to dialogue with the tribes,” a spokesman said. Keliher opposed the tribes’ plan for shared management of fisheries, and he and his department have sparred with Passamaquoddies in recent years.

Keliher criticized Passamaquoddy leadership last month about the tribe’s use of fyke nets to fish for baby eels. The eels, also called elvers, are a moneymaking species that is highly prized in Asian markets, sometimes selling for $2,000 per pound, and are subject to strict quotas. Both tribal and nontribal members fish for them in the state’s rivers and streams. Keliher said the tribe’s gear could cause the state to exceed the quota, but Passamaquoddy leaders have said the tribe plans to continue using the nets.

The Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe have also said recent actions by Gov. Paul LePage, such as the withdrawal of an executive order that sought to promote cooperation between the state and the tribes, have damaged relations. The two tribes and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs said in a joint document on Wednesday that they are no longer recognizing the authority of state officials, lawmakers and courts to interfere with their “self-governing rights.”

And a year ago, the tribe resisted the state’s effort to enforce quotas on individual tribal elver fishermen. The Passamaquoddies believe natural resources belong to all tribal members and not individuals, but they eventually agreed to the quotas.

Back in Bangor, Fawn Pirruccello, one of Harnois’ sisters, was having better luck with her elver catch than she had expected. All three sisters, in fact, were doing well for the breezy, cool conditions of a May evening. While she said she’s not a big fan of the quotas, for now, state laws leave her little choice.

“Like anyone else, I don’t like them,” she said. “But there’s not much you can do.”

New York State Charges Passamaquoddy Fisheries Official With Elvers Poaching

WCSH6/NBC affiliatePassamaquoddy fisheries official charged with fraud while helping Unkechaug Indian Nation implement an eel management plan.
WCSH6/NBC affiliate
Passamaquoddy fisheries official charged with fraud while helping Unkechaug Indian Nation implement an eel management plan.


Gale Courey Toensing, ICTMN

The Passamaquoddy Tribe’s battle with the State of Maine over Native fishing rights became an interstate issue recently when New York State authorities lodged multiple felony poaching charges against a Passamaquoddy fisheries official who is helping the Unkechaug Indian Nation implement its eel management plan.

But according to Fred Moore III, the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Fisheries Committee Coordinator who was charged, the fight for Native fishing rights is soon to become a bigger issue than the battles in Maine and New York.

Moore, his two sons and five other Native men, including citizens of the Unkechaug, Shinnecock, Mohawk and Anishinaabe nations, were charged with possession of American eels in excess of the New York State limit; possession of undersized American eels, and not having a state-issued food fish permit. All three charges are considered felonies because the value of the eels in the group’s possession was more than copy,500. They were also given misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to commit a crime and using an eel trap with a mesh size smaller than the minimum limit allowed, according to Lisa King, spokesperson for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in an e-mail response to an ICTMN request for comment.

King said the eight men “surrendered themselves” to DEC officers on April 8. She did not respond to questions seeking the state’s position on tribal sovereignty and aboriginal fishing rights. The men are scheduled for arraignment on June 25.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe has been locked in battle with the State of Maine for the past two years over the tribe’s treaty and aboriginal right to fish for elvers, tiny baby American eels also known as glass eels. Citing concerns about the dwindling number of American eels available, the state wants to limit the number of permits the tribe issues. The tribe says every member has an inherent right to fish, but its conservation plan limits the total amount of elvers the tribe can harvest. Ironically, until this year the state limited the number of permits it issued but allowed an unlimited harvest of baby eels. This year under threat from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to shut down the fishery, the state has caught up to the Passamaquoddy’s traditional conservation knowledge and reduced and limited the total allowable catch.

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Moore, who is working at Unkechaug under tribal authority, told ICTMN that the matter of Native fishing rights is soon to become a central issue for eastern coastal nations. The Penobscot Nation is already embroiled in a federal lawsuit against the State of Maine over hunting and fishing rights. The lawsuit is supported by the Interior Department, which has entered the case as both intervener and plaintiff, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe is thinking about intervening, Moore said. In an interview with ICTMN, Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves at the tribe’s Sipayik community, said the council will also consider a separate legal action.

RELATED: Feds Join Penobscot Suit Against State of Maine on Fishing Rights

“What we’re doing here is providing Unkechaug with technical assistance in implementing their eel management plan,” Moore said. “But we’re also here to assist other tribes in formulating a position for a class action suit against the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The ASMFC has an American eel management plan that deals purely with member states and only references Native Americans. We don’t want equal status [with states]—want to be exempt from inadequate management mechanisms which cater to the economic interests of competing jurisdictions. We can’t have any part of it because they‘re completely inconsistent with indigenous culture.”

The ASMFC, created in 1942 by Congress, represents 15 Atlantic coastal states with a stated mission of “promoting and protecting Atlantic coastal fishery resources.” Each state has three representatives on the commission: the director of the state’s marine fisheries management agency, a state legislator, and an individual appointed by the state governor to represent “stakeholder interests,” according to the organization’s website. The United South and Eastern Tribes’ 26 member tribes, whose aboriginal and reservation territories are predominantly along the Atlantic coast, are not represented on the commission.

Moore said he wasn’t fishing on the night of March 28 when the men were ticketed for violations, but that the group had fishing permits issued by Unkechaug. The DEC was alerted to the group’s activities in a creek on Long Island’s east end and waited in the weeds for the tribal members to come back and start emptying their nets of elvers, Moore said.

“They were aware that the Unkechaug had issued permits, but they made a policy statement by charging us and basically treated these folks like they’d just robbed a 7-11 at gunpoint,” Moore said. “And to be branded as poachers is laughable—Passamaquoddy has offered the state assistance in apprehending poachers.”

If DEC authorities hadn’t “pounced” on the group, Moor added, they would have seen the men stock most of the elvers above artificial barriers—which is one of the conservation techniques he is implementing for the Unkechaug.

Unkechaug Chief Harry Wallace called the charges “ridiculous…. It was a multi-tribal project, and the whole idea is to restore the fishery all along the northeast coast,” he said. “If we don’t do it the whole fishery will be destroyed if they [the state] continue their practice.”

The creek is in Unkechaug aboriginal territory, where members exercise aboriginal fishing rights, Wallace said.

New York State allows a massive taking of eels six inches and longer, but prohibits the taking of elvers. The tribe has imposed a moratorium on the taking of adult eels, each of which can spawn tens of millions of elvers, Wallace said.

“Our goal is to restore 50 percent of what we take. We put them above a manmade obstruction so their chances of survival are enhanced,” he said. “This is a Native practice.”

To date, the Nation has successfully stocked more than 10,000 glass eels into Mill Pond and East Mill Pond at the headwaters of the Forge River adjacent to the Unkechaug Indian Reservation near Mastic, New York, said Wallace, adding that the DEC violated its own policy by filing felony fishing charges against Nation members and employees operating under the authority of the Unkechaug Nation American Eel Management and Restoration plan without first consulting the Nation.

“After being advised that Unkechaug eel restoration activities were being conducted under license issued by the Nation, ranking officers and representatives of the DEC acknowledged that they were aware of the license but refused to void the charges,” Wallace said. “Instead, DEC officials made racially disparaging remarks concerning the inherent rights and responsibilities of Native Americans, insisting that the Unkechaug eel fishery is a front for the illegal exportation of glass eels to other states.”

The Nation is contemplating legal action against the state, Wallace said.

On April 17, Chief Clayton Cleaves and Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Passamaquoddy communities at Sipayik and Motahkomikuk, respectively, wrote a letter of “support and commitment” to Wallace.

“Please be assured that your efforts to secure the rights and interests of your people while ensuring the sustainability of the American eel within their natural range will benefit all Native people on the east coast, including others who do not understand the cultural and spiritual relationships we have developed over several millennia of existence within our territories,” they wrote.

The chiefs said they are committed to working with Unkechaug “in defense of the marine environment, its resources and fishing rights of indigenous people.”



Tribes resist elver bill that limits access

By Blake Davis, The Associated Press

The lucrative fishery for tiny glass eels, or elvers, has led to a clash between the state and Indian tribes over sovereignty and federal fishing regulations.2012 Reuters file photo
The lucrative fishery for tiny glass eels, or elvers, has led to a clash between the state and Indian tribes over sovereignty and federal fishing regulations.
2012 Reuters file photo

Officials with an American Indian tribe in Maine are resisting an initiative to impose the same restrictions on all elver fishermen, saying a cap on individual catches would force them to abandon tradition by limiting who has access to natural resources.

Members of the Passamaquoddy tribe say a bill to be considered by the House today is against their tribal values because it could prevent some of its fishermen from gaining access to the fishery.

Under the bill, elver fishermen would be subject to the same individual catch limits as other Maine fishermen. But the Passamaquoddy contend the tribe has made numerous other concessions, limiting itself to just one type of gear and agreeing to a decrease in its overall share of the elver harvest.

Passamaquoddy officials say choosing who can fish is cultural, not just a matter of conservation.

“The issue here is who gets to decide tribal culture,” said Fred Moore, the fisheries specialist with the Passamaquoddy who drafted its elver management plan. He said the tribe supported the bill as part of the state’s conservation plan.

The tribe, he said, enacted its own conservation measures years ago, including weekly catch reports from its elver fishermen.

Elvers are baby eels that have ballooned in value in recent years to become the second most valuable fishery in the state behind lobster.

As the state considers the bill, Moore said the tribe would continue to press the state to honor an earlier agreement. That agreement was the result of months of negotiations and had the approval of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission but state officials abandoned it after the attorney general voiced concern it would not be constitutional to apply two sets of rules in the same fishery.

That move also shed doubt on the authority of tribes in regulating marine resources.

The sponsor of the bill says the tribe’s position is understandable.

“The tribes have a valid point,” said Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, who also co-chairs the joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources. “They have said that they have been treated differently over the years many times and maybe we should take that” into consideration, he said.

Still, Kumiega said, lawmakers would continue to take into account the concerns raised by the attorney general.

Both state and tribal officials have said they would like to avoid the types of disputes that arose last year when the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resource invalidated all Passamaquoddy elver fishing licenses.

The commissioner has said he would take similar steps this year if the tribe did not follow state law.