Maine’s Indian tribes have a special relationship with the state. They have their own governments and, in some cases, their own police forces and courts. They send tribal representatives to the Legislature.

The tribes and the state are all independent sovereigns with interlocking responsibilities. When the tribes meet with state government, it’s a meeting of equals.

This is not just what the Indians say. All of this information is in the statements of fact that begin Gov. Paul LePage’s executive order dated April 16, and if the order ended there, it would be a good description of a very complicated relationship that goes back centuries, before the sovereign state of Maine even existed.

But the order does not stop there. LePage then proceeds to revoke an earlier executive order in which he promised that the state and the tribes would work together to solve issues.

“I don’t understand the value of the governor of the state taking the time to revoke such an order,” said Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, whose reservation is north of Old Town. “It does nothing but fuel an already volatile relationship.”

The order appears to be a response to a series of conflicts between the tribes and the state that have made the news recently. Acting in the tribes’ interests, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected the proposed state water quality standard for the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers. The Indians had argued that they have the right to fish for subsistence, but pollution makes a regular diet of fish unsafe.

The governor called the decision “outrageous,” and the state is appealing. The state is using a restrictive definition of the land that is under the Penobscots’ tribal authority by defining the Penobscot River islands that make up their reservation as dry land only, claiming the state has jurisdiction over all of the surrounding water.

On its face, that makes little sense. By definition, an island doesn’t exist without water around it. And the fact that the tribe has the right to make its own fishing rules implies that the tribe has some regulatory control of the water.

The Penobscots also are backing a bill, opposed by the state, that would allow them to prosecute non-Indians accused of domestic violence in Indian courts — if the alleged offense took place on Indian land.

These are all complex and sensitive issues that would best be settled with cooperation among the tribes, the state and the federal government. Instead, LePage has chosen the familiar path of confrontation.

In his recent executive order, the governor said the state should end its collaborative relationship with the tribes because “the state of Maine’s interests have not been respected in the ongoing relationship between sovereigns.”

Francis offered a good definition for the kind of respect the governor is seeking. “It seems like what they are saying at the end of the day is that we will respect your sovereignty as long as you do what we tell you. That’s not how sovereign relationships work.”

Unfortunately, there is very little history for the parties to draw on if they are looking for an example of how a good relationship would work. Today, 35 years after the landmark Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, Indians are among the state’s poorest residents. Economic development in Maine’s cities and along the coast has bypassed their reservations. Referendums to permit Indian casinos have been voted down, while ones for non-Indian gambling halls have passed.

Within living memory, Indians can look back at conditions similar to the Jim Crow South; they couldn’t vote in state elections and were not protected by the law.

A lot of work must be done to build a relationship of mutual trust, and the state has a responsibility to meet the tribes at least halfway. The tribes are being reasonable. With his latest executive order, the governor is not.

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