Maine Tribal Sovereignty

Demonstrators concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House on Monday. David Sharp/Associated Press

The House voted to advance a bill to restore sovereignty to Maine tribes, whose power to self-govern has been limited since 1980, when they signed a land settlement agreement with the state.

After more than two hours of floor speeches, the bill, four years in the making, was approved on a mostly party-line vote, 81-55. The Senate has yet to take up the bill, and Gov. Janet Mills has expressed concerns about its scope.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis and other tribal leaders watched Thursday’s debate from the gallery and were recognized after the vote.

“It’s a positive outcome,” Francis said in an interview. “We’re happy to see it move forward. Getting it through is very important right now. Obviously, you’d like to get to two-thirds vote on everything, but we’ll assess where we’re at now, as it moves to the Senate.”

Maine tribes have fewer rights than all of the 570 other federally recognized tribes in the United States because of the settlement acts, a pair of federal and state laws passed in 1980 to settle a tribal land claim to two-thirds of the territory of the state of Maine. Under the agreements, tribes in Maine are treated more like municipalities than sovereign nations.

Proponents said the bill was a matter of justice, human rights and the right to self-determination, allowing tribes to access federal resources to foster economic development and to improve services such as health care and courts. Opponents said the complex bill would have unintended consequences, including a loss of revenue for municipalities that no longer would be able to tax tribal lands.


The bill, which incorporates the recommendations of a special task force formed to look at changing the 1980 agreements, would greatly enhance the tribes’ powers over land use, natural resources, environmental measures, taxation and other matters on tribal land.

State laws, with the exception of gambling, would no longer apply, not only on reservations but also on trust land, which is owned by the tribes for tribal use and benefit, and is subject to federal laws.

The bill also would exempt tribes from paying state or local sales taxes on their respective territories and would exempt members from paying income taxes, under certain conditions. Those conditions include that the income is earned on or from activities on or sourced to their territory, and that a tribal member or his or her business is based in that territory.


Only two Republicans spoke against the bill.

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, laid out a host of reasons for opposing the bill, including the expansion of hunting and fishing rights, as well as granting tribes more control over environmental laws, which she said could also impact municipalities.


Libby noted that the tribes would still be entitled to state revenue-sharing, a program that returns a portion of state sales and income taxes to municipalities. She also warned that the bill could lead to more litigation over jurisdiction.

Libby also framed her opposition as preserving local control for municipalities.

“I’m under no illusions that my words will sway any votes in this body,” Libby said. “I do understand the gravity of the issue of sovereignty, and I regret I am unable to support the bill given the issues I have laid out and more.”

Rep. Rena Newell, of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, spoke at length on the floor, detailing the history of Maine’s agreement and how it differed from other states, which have mutually benefited by tribal sovereignty.

“Today in 2022, at a time when tribal nations throughout the United States are increasingly becoming leaders in rural progress, in terms of government services, economic development and environmental stewardship, the Wabanaki Nations lag far behind our Indigenous brothers and sisters around the United States,” she said.

While opponents expressed concerns about unintended consequences, Newell said the time has come to confront the “intended consequences” of the settlement agreement, which gives the state control over tribal affairs.



“Mr. Speaker and honorable members of the House, the time to change this is now,” Newell said. “For the Wabanaki tribes rightly deserve and should enjoy the same rights, privileges, powers and immunities as other federally recognized Indian tribes within the United States.”

Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who sponsored the bill, noted the outpouring of support the bill received from over 1,000 individuals and over 100 organizations. She noted that the tribes have only been subject to state laws for the last four decades.

“I want to be clear, as we have heard, this bill is not anything new,” Talbot Ross said. “It is giving the Wabanaki Nations back the rights they used to have. Prior to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, the tribes had those rights.”

Mills opposes the bill, favoring a more targeted and incremental approach. Nine of the 11 members absent for Thursday’s vote were Republicans. Only two lawmakers broke with party ranks, with Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, opposing the bill and Rep. Thomas Martin Jr., R-Greene, supporting it. 

As proposed, the bill would allow tribes to purchase land anywhere in the state and work with the federal government to put it in trust, which would exempt it from property taxes and other Maine laws, a provision that has raised concerns from municipalities.


Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, voted in support of the bill, but alluded to the difficult road ahead.

If needed, Babbidge said he was ready to offer an amendment that would still allow tribes to purchase land anywhere in the state, but would limit future trust lands to existing plantations and unorganized townships, which are controlled by the state.

“I am still committed to equal treatment before the law,” he said. “For this bill to pass it must be considered by the members of two bodies of this Legislature and the chief executive. If any of those individuals are reluctant to agree with this report, I offer my concerns today as a path forward.”


It would take a two-thirds vote of both chambers to override a gubernatorial veto. And Thursday’s House vote fell well short of that mark.

L.D. 1626 is one of several bills proposed this session to help tribes.


Both the House and the Senate voted in support of a bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over its water supply.

And Friday, lawmakers are expected to debate a bill to give Maine tribes exclusive rights to mobile sports betting, while allowing in-person sports betting at Maine harness racing tracks and casinos.

Sen. Joseph Baldacci, D-Bangor, said Thursday that he plans to offer an amendment to gut that bill and replace it with one that has already been approved by the Legislature. Baldacci said his amendment would ensure that tribes would receive 6 percent of the adjusted gross wagering receipts, which he estimated to be between $2 million and $3 million a year.

Chief Francis, however, said tribal leaders do not support that change, because it would put them at a significant disadvantage.

“The amendment, while it’s being cloaked in fairness, is really detrimental to the tribal interest in that bill,” he said. “This is a tribal bill for a meaningful opportunity in Maine’s gaming industry and we believe the inclusion of casinos with online platforms is going to crush any opportunities for the tribes going forward.”


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