Maine’s federally recognized tribes last week pulled back on their effort to win recognition of their inherent rights during this legislative session.

It’s a disappointing end to a campaign that saw the tribes gain unprecedented support for a bill that would have superseded the 1980 Maine Settlement Acts, amending a historical wrong and giving them the same rights already enjoyed by tribes in the other 49 states.

But there is also hope that one day soon the tribes will have the right to self-govern that they fundamentally deserve. Even with the death of this session’s legislation, state officials have gained at least the tentative trust of the tribes – a development that bodes well for a future in which tribal communities thrive alongside their neighbors.

Just a few years ago, that sort of trust would have been unthinkable. In 2015, the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe withdrew their representatives to the Legislature after a particularly rancorous period.

At the time, they were fighting with both Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who called the tribes uncooperative and disrespectful of the state’s interests, and Mills, a Democrat who was attorney general at the time and disagreed with the tribes’ plea for more self-determination.

But when Mills was elected governor, she promised a “new era in tribal-state relations.”


On that, she has delivered. Working with the Legislature, the governor has helped expand the authority of the Wabanaki Nations on a number of fronts, including criminal prosecutions and water protection. The tribes now have greater representation on a couple of important state boards, and a new permanent commission will monitor the health and well-being of indigenous peoples in Maine.

Just this session, the Legislature passed and Mills signed into law bills that give the tribes control over online sports wagering and the ability to better access clean water.

Even more encouraging is the support coming from the Democratically controlled Legislature, which passed those bills as well as the sweeping legislation to restore tribal sovereignty, giving Maine tribes the same rights afforded 570 other federally recognized tribes.

And when Mills said she would veto the bill over concerns that it would cause jurisdictional problems and legal headaches for the tribes, state and nearby communities, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and Senate President Troy Jackson left it up to the tribes on how to proceed.

Rather than move forward and force a confrontation with Mills, the tribal leaders decided to stand down, for now, and work toward a compromise.

Few could have blamed them if they had asked legislators to send the bill to the governor, forcing her to risk upsetting fellow Democrats in an election year with a veto, and hoping that the pressure would get her to relent.


Politics certainly plays a role in their decision. The best chance for further expanding tribal rights lies with Mills as governor, even considering her opposition to some aspects of sovereignty.

The alternative is LePage, Mills’ likely opponent in November, whose election would mean an end to the advancements in tribal-state relations, and possibly some backtracking.

But it also comes from the comfort of knowing they have support in the Legislature, and among the many Mainers who attended rallies or spoke at hearings, as well as from a governor who has taken great pains to show that her objections to tribal sovereignty are in good faith.

Surely it is not easy for the tribes, who have been wronged and lied to so much in their history, to place trust in their state partners.

But in doing so, they are demonstrating the kind of partner they’ll be when sovereignty is truly – we hope – put in place. It should erase any doubts of how they’ll respond when and if sovereignty brings disputes between the state, the tribes, and their neighbors.

It shows that their focus is right where everyone’s should be – on creating the conditions for the tribes and surrounding communities to thrive together.

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