America’s Micmac Indians fight for self rule
By Jason Szep
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine (Reuters) – Like many of his Native
American ancestors, Steve Phillip knows a thing or two about
He fought in the Vietnam War, waged a fight with alcoholism
that nearly killed him and survived near poverty in rural
northern Maine where his father picked berries for a living.
Now, the 58-year-old is one of about 1,000 Micmac Indians
fighting for self rule — which would free them from state laws
and taxes — in a case that illustrates tensions between state
authority and Native American sovereignty in New England, where
land disputes fester nearly 400 years after European settlers
sailed into Massachusetts.
In December, a federal magistrate struck down a 1989 Maine
state act that would have subjected the Micmac tribe to Maine
laws. Maine appealed in January and a trial is pending in the
1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
“Every time we go into court I come away feeling a little
better,” said Phillip, a stocky former potato farmer who is the
tribe’s vice chief, from his reservation on an abandoned air
force base in Presque Isle, a city of about 9,500 people.
The legal tussle with Maine, which could pave the way for
Micmac-owned tobacco shops, casinos and other businesses free
from state taxes, comes as Indian tribes nationwide are
witnessing unprecedented economic development.
“There’s a boom going on Indian country,” said Joseph Kalt,
chair of Harvard University’s Native American Program, which
found that between 1990 and 2000 Native American incomes grew
three times faster than the U.S. economy as a whole.
“What you are starting to see is a fairly thick economic
development across reservations with more and more tribes able
to support retail sectors, more and more tribes engaging in
successful manufacturing enterprises and other mainstream
businesses,” said Kalt. “The most surprising statistic of all,
it just knocked our socks off, is that the tribes without
gaming are also growing three times faster.”
For many tribes, greater autonomy began with federal
legislation in the 1970s. The 1990s saw rapid development of
tribal court systems, police departments, tax codes,
state-of-the-art water treatment plants and health clinics.
Native American incomes still lag the national average, but
many tribes are developing golf resorts, expanding power plants
and exploring new businesses.
Maine’s Micmacs, whose nomadic ancestors arrived in eastern
Canada and the northern U.S. corner about 10,000 years ago, say
they want a slice of that prosperity to relieve chronic
unemployment. About 80 percent of the tribe is out of work.
They were excluded from an $81.5 million Indian settlement
act in 1980 in Maine that gave federal services and money to
the state’s three other tribes. Their Canadian roots and
nomadic history made it hard to prove land claims in Maine.
The bulk of an estimated 20,000 North American Micmacs —
also spelled Mi’kmaq — live in Canada.
But in 1991, Maine’s Micmacs were federally recognized,
gaining them access to free medical care, housing, education
and food subsidies. Traditions like basket-weaving and the
nearly forgotten Micmac language have seen a revival in Maine.
Their population has nearly doubled.
“We are getting our culture back,” said Steve Phillip’s
bother-in-law Paul Phillip, a 67-year-old former tribal chief.
“It’s so much better than it was. No one is hungry here now.”
Winning in court, he said, would give young, better
educated Micmacs reason to stay with the tribe in Maine, which
lost more jobs than every American state except Mississippi,
Michigan and Louisiana in the final quarter of 2005. “Gaming
will help a lot financially. We could also buy lumber mills.”
The tribe wants the court to assert what it considers
fundamental principles of tribal self-rule. This boils down to
freedom from state laws and taxes, an autonomy held by many of
the nation’s 561 federally recognized tribes.
The legal fight with Maine began in 2001 when three women
fired by the band complained to the Maine Human Rights
Commission, which ruled in the women’s favor. The tribe went to
federal court, claiming that because it was a sovereign nation,
the commission, a state agency, had no jurisdiction.
“We’re arguing that a tribe retains all its rights unless
Congress expressly and explicitly removes them,” said Douglas
Luckerman, the tribe’s lawyer who also represented the
Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes in similar New England cases.
Maine Attorney General Steve Rowe says he is concerned the
Micmacs could wind up exempt from an unknown number of state
Other tribes are also facing difficult negotiations and
legal challenges in New England, including the Mashpee
Wampanoags which won preliminary recognition in March but face
tough talks in Massachusetts over the right to build a casino.
Luckerman compares Maine’s case to a ruling last May by the
1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal which said Rhode Island
violated the Narraganset Indian tribe’s sovereignty when state
police raided a tax-free tribal smoke shop, seized cigarettes
and arrested tribal leaders in July 2003.
The state has appealed. He said all these cases need to be
resolved so investors can feel confident that when doing
business with New England’s tribes that they know which rules
– state, federal or in some cases tribal — apply. “You can’t
attract any kind of significant investment money that is going
to be there for the long term if you can’t give them some kind
of stable legal environment,” he said.