Rep. Jared Golden introduced a bill Thursday that would allow Maine’s Indian tribes to benefit from new federal laws that might dilute Maine’s jurisdictional authority over them.

Maine tribes have been excluded from federal laws and programs under an agreement negotiated with the state decades ago, and have long sought to benefit from changes to federal law that apply to all other tribes.

The Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act would amend the federal law that governs the historic 1980 land claims settlement between Maine and the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes to remove one of several restrictions on their sovereignty. In the 1980 negotiations to settle the tribes’ claim to two thirds of the state, Maine demanded that no federal Indian law – past or future – that undermined Maine’s authority would apply to the Maine tribes unless Congress specifically included them.

None of the 570 other federally recognized tribes in the United States faces similar encumbrances. The provisions in the law, the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, excluded Maine tribes from the provisions of the Indian Gaming Act (which allows and regulates tribal casinos), the Stafford Act (which allows tribes to seek federal disaster relief funds), the Indian Health Improvement Act (which allows tribes to employ medical professionals licensed in another state), the Violence Against Women Act (which allowed tribes to prosecute non-Indian defendants for domestic violence crimes on their reservations) and other laws.

The measure proposed by Golden, a Democrat representing Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, was announced along with statements of support from the chiefs of three of Maine’s four tribes. It would only apply to future laws, though it has language that will allow the Houlton Band of Maliseet and Aroostook Band of Micmacs (also spelled Mi’kmaq) to join the other two Maine tribes in benefiting from the Indian Child Welfare Act. That 1978 law increases a tribal court’s authority in child custody matters and limits a state’s ability to remove Indian children from their families.

“Wabanaki tribes in Maine should have the same access to things like health care programs and emergency relief as federally recognized tribes in every other state in America,” Golden said in a written statement.

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Tribal leaders worked closely with Golden’s office on the bill, which is being introduced days ahead of a legislative hearing in Augusta on a proposal to remove all the impediments the 1980 settlement agreement placed on the Maine tribes’ sovereignty. That package would make all federal Indian laws – past and future – apply to the Maine tribes and remove state and municipal authority over their reservations and trust land.

TRIBAL LEADERS SUPPORT BILL

In remarks included in Golden’s news release, tribal leaders expressed support for his federal bill as an incremental step toward achieving the same level of sovereignty enjoyed by most of the country’s other federally recognized tribes.

Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation, shown at a rally in 2020, said, “Future generations of Wabanaki people in Maine will benefit greatly from this legislation as well as the people of Maine.” Press Herald photo

“This bill focuses on giving Wabanaki people access in the future to the tools necessary to address the disparities that exist in Maine’s tribal communities today by allowing us to benefit from future  laws passed by Congress for Native people,” Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said. “Future generations of Wabanaki people in Maine will benefit greatly from this legislation as well as the people of Maine.”

Maggie Dana, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Pleasant Point reservation said: “While we aspire to full sovereignty on par with the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the country, our hope is that Congressman Golden’s legislation takes a modest but important step forward.”

The bill’s prospects are unclear at this early stage. To become law, Golden’s bill must pass the U.S. House and Senate – where Democrats have razor thin control – and be signed by the president.

Gov. Janet Mills has expressed reservations about the settlement act reforms proposed at the state level, putting her position at odds with those of fellow Democrats Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. In a February 2020 letter to lawmakers, she did not specifically address the measures to make all federal Indian laws applicable in Maine, but said she was concerned the reforms “would substantially alter the jurisdictional framework that governs the Tribal-State relationship in Maine.”

Golden was unavailable for an interview Thursday afternoon. Mills’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

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