For the first time, the Penobscot Nation has hosted a political forum featuring candidates for governor. About 150 people from the Penobscot Nation, as well as members of the surrounding communities came to Wednesday night's forum on Indian Island.
All candidates running for Maine governor were invited, tribal members say, but only the seven Democratic candidates showed up. The Republican gubernatorial candidates were at a different forum at St. Joseph's College in Standish, says party spokesman Garrett Murch. He says he didn't know about the Penobscot Nation event.
Among the Democratic candidates attending was Janet Mills, who has been heavily criticized by the Penobscot Nation and its supporters over her role in enforcing state jurisdiction over the waters of the Penobscot River.
Tribal leaders acknowledge that relations with the state have been strained.
In 2015 the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes withdrew their tribal representatives from Augusta, citing frustration over a lack of tribal sovereignty. But Chief Kirk Francis says the issues on the table go far beyond water rights, and to the tribe's very right to exist and thrive.
"Maine historically lags far behind most other states in its relationship with indigenous people," Francis said. "We have to change that dynamic. I know we're committed to doing that."
Tribal ambassador Maulian Dana said the forum is one step toward re-engagement in a process that has frustrated many in the native community.
"I hope it starts a dialogue," she said. "I think that there's a lot of tension between the tribes and the state, and the only way we’re going to build those bridges is if we really understand where one another’s coming from."
Dana said the turnout for the event is encouraging. “I know that indigenous people aren't a huge voting block or a very powerful group, so it speaks volumes that everybody is willing to come out tonight.”
Chief Francis said that while the tribe has formed partnerships and been involved in a number of political and social efforts across the country, meaningful partnerships with the state of Maine are lagging behind.
"We are represented in Washington by some of the greatest minds of this state," he said. "Where we're really falling short with these relationships and partnerships is right here in the state of Maine."
This story has been clarified to note that Republican gubernatorial candidates were at a separate GOP candidate forum Wednesday night.