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Maine lawmakers have a chance to end these tribes’ fight for sovereignty

As the state Legislature’s second session reaches its final days, a proposed legislation to restore sovereignty to Maine’s tribes is being considered. Earlier this week, dozens of Indigenous advocates, social justice groups and environmentalists marched outside the state capitol building.

The state House voted 81-55 to pass the bill on Thursday and now it heads to the Senate. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn its session on Wednesday.

Leaders of the Wabanaki nations said they haven’t had equal access to many federal programs and have been excluded from new policy involving federally recognized tribes as a result of a decades-old settlement.

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In the 1970s a years-long legal battle ensued when the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy argued their ancestral lands had been unlawfully relinquished to Massachusetts and then Maine without the approval of the federal government as required by the Nonintercourse Act of 1790. Their claim was considered to cover about two thirds of Maine’s land.

The dispute was eventually settled in 1980 with the signage of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which led the federal government to pay $81.5 million to the tribes but made them subject to Maine laws and placed them under the jurisdiction of state courts.

“What was meant to settle a land claim turned into all kinds of jurisdictional provisions,” Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation told CNN.

Since the settlement was reached, Francis says, Congress has passed more than a 100 laws “for the benefit of Native Americans that tribes in Maine have not been able to access in a way that other tribes do across the country.”
Those federal laws include the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, which amended the Stafford Act to provide federally recognized tribal governments the option to request a major disaster declaration; and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which includes a provision allowing tribes to employ medical professionals licensed in another state.

Francis said the settlement has impacted the daily lives of the Penobscot people in other ways. For example, the tribe currently doesn’t have decision power over dam relicensing and wastewater discharge from municipalities and businesses that affect tribal waters, he said.

“It’s been very difficult culturally for the tribe over the years to not have a voice,” said Francis, adding the Penobscot are riverine people, which means the river and its resources are central to their culture.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, the bill’s sponsor, has said it’s “absolutely past time” to restore tribal sovereignty in Maine and “modernize” the relationship between the state and the Wabanaki nations.

“Every time a study is conducted on how the tribes fare under the Settlement Act, it’s critical conclusion is that the tribes suffer and have been unable to progress at the same rate as most of other tribal nations within this country,” Talbot Ross said in a judiciary committee hearing on the bill in February.

While tribal leaders are hopeful state lawmakers may approve the proposed bill during the current session, they have recently faced both support and opposition for legislative changes.

Last year, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, vetoed a bill to allow tribal gaming. In her veto message, the governor said the tribes have been “unfairly excluded” from operating their own gaming facility, but the bills were not the answer to a complex issue.

Jerry Reid, the chief legal counsel to Gov. Mills, testified against L.D. 1626 in a February hearing saying the governor’s office was not ready to support the bill as drafted.

He said the governor is not “necessarily opposed to amending” the settlement act but “when amendments are being considered, it’s critical that we avoid ambiguous language that could lead to future conflict or litigation.”

Spokespeople for Mills did not respond to requests of comment about L.D. 1626, the proposed tribal sovereignty bill.

During a House vote on Thursday, state Rep. Lauren Libby criticized the bill saying it could result in conflicting regulations at the state, federal and tribal levels that could lead to years of costly litigation.

Numerous Maine communities may likely be impacted by those disputes because unlike other states, Libby said, tribal land is spread throughout the state and not continuous.

For Francis, the opposition to the bill is out of “fear of the unknown and quite frankly, the lack of wanting to give up any control.”

“This is not the tribes trying to gain any special rights here. We’re just in to restore the rights we had,” he said.

In Congress, US Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, recently introduced a bill that would amend the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 and allow future federal laws to impact the Wabanaki nations. The bill has been referred to the House natural resources subcommittee.
“This bill will cut through unnecessary red tape and bureaucratic efforts to block the Wabanaki tribes from benefiting from future federal laws passed for their benefit, and create opportunities for improved standards of living and economic growth,” Golden said in a hearing over the bill last month.

CNN’s Tiffany Anthony contributed to this report.

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