Gov. Janet Mills isn’t cruising to re-election, but she’s in an increasingly strong position.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision obliterating abortion rights in many states, forcing women’s health clinics to shut down services overnight, plays to her strengths. She’s a co-founder of the Maine Women’s Lobby, with a strong pro-choice voting record throughout her career.

Her principal opponent, Paul LePage, has been reduced to near-incoherence, satisfying neither pro-choice or right-to-life voters and apparently wishing the whole issue will go away, which it won’t.

So it might be a good time to lean back, consider carefully, and take her foot off the brake when it comes to the rights of Maine’s Indian tribes.

For the first time, Congress is considering a measure, introduced by 2nd District Rep. Jared Golden, that would grant Maine tribes the benefits of future federal legislation. It’s about time.

Such recognition has, uniquely, been barred to the Maine tribes ever since they agreed to Maine’s implementing legislation in 1980. It accompanied the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act passed by Congress just months before President Jimmy Carter left office.


It was a rushed negotiation; it was already clear a Ronald Reagan presidency wouldn’t be sympathetic with anything like the $81.5 million the tribes ultimately received to purchase additional land.

In return, the tribes abandoned claims to nearly two-thirds of the state they had plausibly argued had been granted by long-neglected treaties.

Janet Mills has adopted the same hardline position on the tribes that all her predecessors –Democratic, Republican and Independent – have taken before. They agree to negotiate, but nothing ever comes of it.

So her suggestion that Congress hold off while she continues the talks should be treated with extreme skepticism.

The state settlement act, which reduces the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes to municipal status, is nothing like the government-to-government relations granted by Congress to all other recognized tribes.

It was a dubious deal then, and now – after 42 years of missing out on the numerous benefits that Congress has voted – it’s manifestly unreasonable, and unjust.


The trouble started with Joe Brennan, the Democrat who, as attorney general, took an aggressive stance against tribal claims, and continued to oppose settlement as governor. He often invoked his brother, who ran a parking concession, as an example: Why should he have to pay for wrongs done two centuries ago?

It rather missed the point, but Brennan’s position was enshrined into law: The state contributed not one cent; it was all federal funding.

That’s why Mills’s position that the settlement act is sacrosanct is dubious. If anyone could object to changing the tribes’ status, it would be the federal government that paid the bills, not the state.

Frustrated by decades of inaction at the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, formed to mediate disputes, the tribes turned to federal courts, a largely fruitless endeavor. The law is the law, and only Maine can change it – though Congress can apply pressure.

A crack in Mills’s stance appeared during the last legislative session when, after debate over finally allowing the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a decent water system, she backed down after realizing a veto would be overridden.

She continued to block the main measure, LD 1626, supported strongly by fellow Democrats, to equalize the tribes’ relationship with the state. She prevailed; the bill was shelved – but it will be back.


It’s time to reconsider Maine tribes’ uniquely subordinate status. Rather than the “no change” mantra six successive administrations have chanted, why not reverse things, and see what federal benefits really might inconvenience the state?

The public’s interest in lifting these prohibitions must be weighed. There was concern at the time, and it continues, that allowing tribes to acquire land without limit, then subject it to tribal rules, could be disruptive.

Yet if the burden of proof were partly on the administration, rather than constantly on the tribes, it should be possible to make rapid progress through genuine negotiations.

Gaming interests, mostly out-of-state corporations, would fiercely resist any suggestion the tribes could do what they do everywhere else: open casinos. Again, what’s the harm to the public?

Mills’s offer, for exclusive access to online sports betting, accepted by the tribes, was a good gesture, but hardly settles the larger issue.

A new day could finally dawn for the Wabanaki, who graciously share Maine with the rest of us. The essence of leadership is not stubbornly maintaining old strictures, but embracing the virtues of equality under the law.

It’s the governor’s call and, should she be re-elected, there can be no more pressing task in a second and final term.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback. He welcomes comment at

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