Leaders of Maine’s federally recognized tribes on late Tuesday night backed off their push to pass sweeping legislation to restore their sovereignty – at least for this session.

Gov. Janet Mills was expected to veto the bill, which passed in the Legislature but without the support to override it.

Leaders from the Wabanaki Nations said it’s clear L.D. 1626 will not become law, but they noted Mills’ stated interest in trying to reach targeted, negotiated agreements to address specific issues related to tribal health, education, economic development and other jurisdictional issues.

“As leaders of the Wabanaki Nations, we are disappointed that the Governor and Attorney General’s Office continue to have concerns about the provisions of L.D. 1626,”  the tribal chiefs said in a statement issued late Tuesday. “So, while we have made significant and concrete progress in moving the needle, there is still more work to be done. Time is on our side.”

The letter was signed by Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis, Passamaquoddy Chief at Pleasant Point Elizabeth Dana, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township Chief William Nicholas Sr., Houlton Band of the Maliseets Chief Clarissa Sabattis and Mi’kmaq Nation Chief Charlie Peter Paul.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, had been waiting to hear from tribal leaders about whether to continue pushing the bill forward toward an inevitable veto.


Tribal leaders acknowledged the historic significance of the moment.

“Leaders of both parties are now asking the leaders of the Wabanaki Nations how best to address sovereignty restoration,” the chiefs said. “We have never been asked before. So, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place.”

Mills had asked lawmakers and tribal leaders to hold onto the bill, which would restore many of the same rights afforded to the 570 other federally recognized tribes. A pair of 1980 settlement claims in Maine subjugates the tribes to state law, treating them like municipalities rather than sovereign nations.

Those agreements have led to numerous lawsuits, but Mills warned that passing the sovereignty bill would result in years – if not decades – of new litigation, while forcing her to veto the legislation could strain the relations between the tribes and the state that have been improving.

Tribal leaders and advocates have poured themselves into passing L.D. 1626 and have built a large coalition in support of the effort.

But even without it, tribal leaders acknowledged the progress they have made in the last three years. Mills signed a bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point more control of its water supply and she is expected to sign a bill she negotiated with tribal leaders that would give them exclusive rights to online sports betting, a lucrative and growing industry, and change the way tribal members and certain entities are taxed.


Mills also has signed bills to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day and to ban Native American mascots, as well as efforts to expand the ability of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes to prosecute domestic violence against non-tribal members and to implement strict water quality standards to protect sustenance fishing in culturally important tribal waters.

Tribal leaders support Mills’ compromise, but they have made it clear that it is no substitute for full sovereignty.

Jackson was awaiting input from tribal leaders, saying it’s a “very delicate” issue.

“They don’t want to lose ground, but they feel strongly they deserve their sovereignty, and I feel that way too,” Jackson said earlier Tuesday. “I think it is hard for them – that many years of being slapped down, mistreated, treated poorly – it creates that mindset that it’s probably going to happen again.”

Jackson and Fecteau are co-sponsoring the bill put forward by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, based on recommendations of a special study commission. Talbot Ross could not be reached for an interview on Tuesday.



Mills has long expressed strong opposition to initiatives to end the state’s jurisdiction over Maine’s tribes and tribal territories, which fall under federal rather than state or municipal laws in the rest of the country. Such a move, she and Attorney General Aaron Frey have both said, would increase rather than decrease litigation between the state and tribes. In her letter to tribal leaders, made public on Monday, the governor emphasized this point by saying “my fears are that (L.D. 1626) would yield years, if not decades, of new, painful litigation that would only divide the state further.”

Attorney Matthew Manahan of Pierce Atwood, who has represented paper companies, municipalities and sewer districts in opposition to tribal sovereignty reforms, has testified that the change would create “a dual system of regulation” that would “create compliance burdens and confusion” for business and industry. “The tribes would have the authority to set standards without considering non-tribal members’ comments or economic interests,” he noted in remarks on L.D. 1626.

The tribes point out that the status quo created by the settlement acts has triggered near constant legal disputes as the state and tribes jostle over what is and is not an “internal tribal matter” under the settlement acts, and thus exempt from state interference; or whether a given federal Indian law would undermine the state’s sovereignty if it were applied in Maine, allowing the state to block its implementation in Maine.

“The idea that (L.D. 1626) would cause more litigation is wrong,” says Donna Loring, a Penobscot elder and former legislator and tribal councilor and police chief who served as Mills’ adviser on tribal matters in 2019 and 2020. “We’ve been in litigation on so many issues you can’t count them all. I think if federal law applied it would be a lot easier.”

“The state wants total control over the tribes and the tribes have been fighting for almost 200 years for their identity and to not be totally controlled,” Loring added. “I think we’ll probably have to fight another 200.”

Loring also sent a reporter a statement she made on a tribal affairs radio program she hosts on Blue Hill-based WERU.


“There are those who believe the tribes are like children and can’t handle sovereignty and would in fact do harm to their neighbors and the state. They have expressed the fear that there are so many things that could happen that we are just not aware of,” Loring said in the statement.

The state, she added, “needs to stop impeding tribal efforts to be placed under federal law like the rest of Indian Country.”


Pressure had been building on Mills to reconsider her opposition to the bill, which has received widespread support from residents, advocacy groups and lawmakers. The bill passed both the House and Senate, but fell shy of the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a veto.

At a State House rally last Wednesday, Vice Chief Darrell Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Indian Township called on Mills to “be a good, decent person,” while lawmakers spoke with certainty that the bill would reach the governor’s desk, calling on Mills to “do what’s right, moral and just.”

A previous rally in support of the Passamaquoddy water bill drew hundreds of supporters to the State House.


Last Thursday, Mills put pen to paper and reiterated her opposition to the bill, stressing her opposition was based on policy and “not personal.” She asked lawmakers and tribal leaders to stand down, warning that forcing her to veto the bill could hurt the working relationship between the tribes and the state – which had improved greatly – and inflame passions on both sides of the issue. She said she was committed to negotiating solutions to specific problems, rather than making wholesale changes.

State-tribal relationships hit a low under former Gov. Paul LePage in 2015, when representatives from the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes withdrew their representatives to the Legislature. The leaders decried policies they said perpetuate a “guardian-to-ward relationship” with tribal nations, who clashed with LePage and Mills, as attorney general, over sustenance fishing rights and tribal courts’ authority to prosecute domestic violence committed by non-members on tribal lands.

Mills has sought to reset relations with the tribes. And the Passamaquoddy Tribe has returned a representative – Rep. Rena Newell – to the Maine House.

Newell could not be reached on Tuesday.

Tribal leaders acknowledged their advances at the State House rally. Ernie Neptune, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, described improved relationships and newly passed bills as “monumental,” while Dwayne Tomah, Passamaquoddy language and cultural teacher, said the public support for tribes has been “unprecedented.”

Mills sent her letter the night before the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee met to determine which bills it would fund. Among them was L.D. 1626, which would result in a loss of $44,650 in sales and income taxes in the first year.


The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee opted not to fund the bill. Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, said the committee withheld the bill because of ongoing negotiations between the tribes and the governor.

Fecteau said that holding the bill back had nothing to do with the funding, or providing political cover for Mills, who risked exacerbating tensions with the left-wing of her party with a veto.

 “I have a great relationship with the governor. I respect the governor,” Fecteau had said earlier Tuesday. “But on this issue, if the tribes want to send 1626 to her desk, we will do what it takes to make that happen.”

That didn’t turn out to be necessary.

Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this story.

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