Gov. Janet Mills is opposing federal legislation proposed by Congressman Jared Golden to allow Maine’s tribes to benefit from all future federal American tribal laws, a move that again puts the Democrat at odds with Maine’s tribes and most of her party.

The bill was sponsored by Golden, D-2nd District, and cosponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. Mills also is breaking with President Biden’s administration, which supports the legislation.

In a letter from her chief legal counsel, Gerald Reid, Mills made it clear she is committed to the framework created by the controversial 1980 land claims settlement acts, which deprive Maine’s tribes of a wide range of sovereign powers and privileges enjoyed by the United States’ other 570 federally recognized tribes. Congress, Reid wrote, should not intervene to change the terms of the 42-year-old act and the tribes should negotiate with the state for changes, as the settlement envisioned.

“We object to its categorical approach to making federal laws applicable in Maine, which would erode the Settlement Acts’ foundational jurisdictional compromise,” Reid wrote in a letter submitted to the House Indigenous affairs subcommittee. “Questions of whether federal statutes should be made applicable in Maine should be answered on a case-by-case basis so that the effects of each such decision on Tribal lands and adjacent non-tribal communities can be thoroughly evaluated and understood.”

Reid blasted Golden’s bill – H.R. 6707, the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act – for attempting to change the terms of the land claims settlement without the state of Maine’s consent.

“The Mills Administration was not consulted in the development or drafting of H.R. 6707, and we learned about the bill only shortly before it was printed in the House,” he wrote. “If Congress were to amend (the federal settlement act) at the request of only one party, it would set a troubling precedent that disincentivizes negotiation between the settling parties, and instead encourages those parties to petition Congress continually seeking their preferred amendments, all of which would be dependent on the politics of the moment. That result would serve no one’s interest.”

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The stance appears to make it likely that Mills will veto a wide-ranging state bill, L.D. 1626, passed by the Democratic-controlled Maine House this week and Senate on Friday that would ensure all federal Indian laws – past and future – apply to Maine’s tribes.

Mills’ office did not respond to an interview request about Golden’s federal bill or to written questions asking if she intended to veto the state bill if it came to her desk.

Golden’s bill would amend the federal law that governs the historic 1980 agreement 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 Indigenous 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.

Unlike the state bill passed by the Maine House and Senate, Golden’s congressional bill would only apply to future laws, though it has language that would allow the Houlton Band of Maliseet and the 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 Indigenous children from their families.

The Biden administration has also come out in support of Golden’s bill. “H.R. 6707 ensures that, moving forward, the Wabanaki Nations are governed by federal beneficial laws,” the U.S. Department of Interior said in a written submission to the subcommittee. “The Department supports H.R. 6707.”

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The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, a joint state-tribal body created by the settlement acts as a forum to discuss problems, submitted testimony saying the acts had “been interpreted and applied unilaterally by the State in ways that have been harmful to the Wabanaki communities, and by extension, neighboring rural Maine non-tribal communities that could otherwise have benefited from new federal laws.”

On Wednesday, Democratic leaders of the Maine House and Senate also submitted testimony backing the bill, which they called “modest and narrowly tailored.” They said the bill had strong popular support and “should be viewed as noncontroversial.”

Golden’s bill received strong support from representatives of Maine’s tribes at a virtual hearing on March 31, but was opposed by the Maine Forest Products Council over concerns about the creation of new jurisdictions in Maine. In their questions, several Democratic members of the congressional subcommittee indicated they strongly supported the bill and were not impressed with Maine’s position.

“We cannot have a group of tribal nations treated differently in their sovereignty than other tribal nations in this country,” said Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota.

But the ranking Republican expressed concern about Congress acting without Maine’s consent. “I hope maybe as this process continues we can find some way of navigating this that gets these resources to the tribes without overriding the jurisdiction of the state,” Rep. Jay Obernolte of California said.

The bill has a long road to becoming law, including jumping the hurdles to make it to a U.S. House floor vote and then needing the approval of the Senate and Biden’s signature.


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