A historic measure that would allow Maine’s tribes to benefit from all future federal Indian laws for the first time since 1980 passed the U.S. House on Thursday evening.

In a surprise move, the bill introduced and championed by Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, was added as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the chamber in a bipartisan vote, 329-101.

If passed by the Senate, the measure 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 of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act excluded Maine tribes from the provisions of numerous federal laws, including the Indian Gaming Act allowing and regulating tribal casinos, the Stafford Act allowing tribes to seek federal disaster relief funds, the Indian Health Improvement Act allowing tribes to employ medical professionals licensed in another state and the Violence Against Women Act, which allows tribes to prosecute non-Indian defendants for domestic violence crimes on their reservations.

“We have a long way to go until this bill reaches the president’s desk, but I have been honored to work with Wabanaki tribal leaders and my colleagues to advance this legislation,” Golden said in a statement Thursday evening.


Attaching the legislation to the broader defense bill was a procedural maneuver to help ensure passage of the measure, which had been awaiting approval in the House Appropriations Committee.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden said, “We have a long way to go until this bill reaches the president’s desk, but I have been honored to work with Wabanaki tribal leaders and my colleagues to advance this legislation.”  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The initiative is strongly supported by Maine’s tribes, whose chiefs testified in favor of it at a Congressional hearing March 31, but is strongly opposed by Gov. Janet Mills, who has rejected congressional meddling in the controversial 1980 settlement and even sought last week to get House Democrats to delay a committee vote.

Mills’s position puts her at odds with most other top Maine Democrats, including legislative leaders and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, who co-sponsored Golden’s bill. The Biden administration and national indigenous people’s rights organizations also support it.

Mills – who is hosting the National Governors Association meeting in Portland Wednesday through Friday – did not respond Thursday night to a request for her reaction to the House vote. She has declined to answer questions about her opposition to the bill and her efforts to seek a delay.

“I applaud Congressman Golden’s shared commitment to getting this legislation through Congress and for including it in this year’s defense bill,” Pingree said in a statement. “I’m proud to join him in fixing the disparity that has uniquely challenged Maine’s tribes for decades.”

A more ambitious state-level legislative package that aims to give Maine tribes all the same rights and powers as other federally-recognized tribes was withdrawn last session after it became clear Mills would veto it.

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