Righting wrongs on Indian lands

The State of Maine and the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes have reached agreement in their long-simmering dispute over ownership of the northern two-thirds of Maine. It involves the largest of 14 recent land claims brought by Indians in the eastern half of the US. The tentative settlement represents the latest encouraging step for American Indians seeking to ensure that, after centuries of neglect, deprivation, and poverty, their rights and traditions are preserved.

This time it will cost the government more than a few blankets and some corn to meet the demands of the Maine Indians, who point out that this was the meager price their ancestors got for 12.5 million acres more than 150 years ago. The Maine tribes brought suit eight years ago, claiming that the deal their forefathers struck back then -- like other land deals of that period that were unfair to Indians -- was in violation of the Indian Non-Intercourse Act of 1790. It stated that any transaction with Indians had to be ratified by Congress. If the state legislature approves the $81.5 million settlement as expected, Congress must then ratify it. Under current economic circumstances, with President Carter pressing for a balanced federal budget, that may not prove easy.

Under the agreement, the two tribes would get $57.4 million in federal funds to buy 300,000 acres of Maine's forests as well as $27 million in trust funds to be used for developing such tribal ventures as pulp and paper operations, tourist facilities, and other income-producing projects. The tribes also would get legal jurisdiction over criminal cases in which both parties are Indians and would be granted limited control over hunting and fishing on their new land.

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Congress will face some tough spending choices in the coming months. In weighing appropriations for Maine's settlement with the Penobscots and Passamaquoddys, lawmakers should keep in mind the long history of broken promises that has helped foster what tribal leaders today say is continuing Indian mistrust of whites and the government.

A primary goal of Indian activism across the US in the past decade has been to achieve greater self-reliance and self-determination, to give all tribes the opportunity to develop their own resources and thereby become less dependent on welfare and other government programs. Recent Indian gains made via the courts and at the bargaining table seem to point to growing public awareness of the economic and moral stake the country has in helping these original Americans to fulfill their aspirations. The recent "energy treaty" signed by Western governors and Indian leaders, for instance, took important note of the common interests of Indians and other Americans in developing energy resources on reservations and in ensuring they are not exploited at the expense of the people who live on them.

The Maine settlement promises this same kind of long-overdue recognition and holds out new hope for the future for the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes.

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