historic measure that would allow Maine’s tribes to benefit from future federal Indian laws looks unlikely to be adopted by the U.S. Senate before the current Congress ends early in the New Year.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s bill seeks to 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. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The bill, introduced and championed by Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, passed the House on July 14 as an amendment to the annual defense spending authorization bill. But the bill – which only affects Maine’s tribes – lacks a champion in the Senate.

Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and who was a lawyer before entering politics, told the Press Herald that he opposes the bill, echoing the objections of Gov. Janet Mills, a former state prosecutor and attorney general who earlier this year quashed a sweeping state tribal rights package that had been passed with bipartisan support in the state Legislature.

“Any significant change should result from negotiations between the tribes and the state,” King said in an interview on Wednesday.

Golden’s bill seeks to 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.

Golden’s bill would make any future federal laws automatically apply to Maine’s tribes, effectively amending one of the provisions of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, a federal law that has excluded Maine tribes from the provisions of numerous 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.



King opposes Golden’s measure because he doesn’t think Congress should be meddling in the terms of a binding settlement negotiated and approved by the state and three of Maine’s tribes in 1980. “The land claims Settlement Act was just that, it was a settlement and it was based on lengthy negotiations between the tribes and the state,” he said. “In order to modify the agreement there should be another agreement.”

“If it is to be modified, it would have to be modified after negotiations and further agreement between the state and tribes,” King added.

Sen. Susan Collins – a Republican who was serving as an aide to Sen. Bill Cohen when the settlement was ratified in 1980 – said she has not taken a position on the measure but that it could have potentially serious ramifications that need to be carefully assessed. With the Senate expected to adjourn Sept. 30 to allow members seeking reelection to hit the campaign trail, she said it was unlikely there would be time in the lame duck session to hold hearings and create companion legislation.

“This is a really complicated issue and I want to make sure I understand what the consequences would be,” Collins said in a telephone interview from Washington on Wednesday. “I recognize our tribes have played an incredibly important role in Maine’s history and I have a lot of respect for them and a good relationship with the chiefs. Obviously, I’m concerned that the state and our forest products industry are not on board, and I recognize this is a difficult issue.

“So I don’t think we really have time before we adjourn for the year to really give this kind of significant change the thorough evaluation with testimony from experts that I believe it warrants.”



Elizabeth “Maggie” Dana, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s reservation at Pleasant Point (or Sipayik), expressed frustration with the situation.

“The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was passed in a different era when we had no choice but to sign a deal that our communities did not understand,” Dana said in a written statement to the Press Herald. “Those who feel beholden to the Settlement Act, as though it is etched in stone, must stop clinging to the past because there is no good reason why our Nations should not have access to laws passed by Congress to improve public health and safety in tribal communities.”

Referring to the forest products industry – whose association opposed the House bill at the hearing – Dana said it was “sad to see one special interest group with deep ties to Maine’s political elite fight us tooth and nail because our push for equality under federal law is perceived as a threat to their corporate profits. We are simply here to build healthier, safer communities for our people and our neighbors.”

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said he was still hopeful the measure might be passed as an amendment attached either to the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act or to the “continuing resolution” Congress will have to pass to avoid a federal government shutdown when the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

“We’re disappointed with where Sen. King is, but we hope our continued conversations will bear some fruit,” Francis said. “This bill has nothing to do with upending the Settlement Act and has everything to do with fairness.”


“We feel we’ve taken a very reasonable approach to this, a very proactive approach that doesn’t try to relitigate the past,” he added. “We’re looking to the future and to make tribes in Maine have parity with other tribes across the United States.”


Collins said she did not think it was a good idea to move the measure forward by attaching it to laws Congress will have to pass this session. “Attaching a change of that significance to an unrelated bill really is not a good way to proceed,” she said.

Golden was not available for an interview Wednesday or Thursday.

Golden’s bill was strongly supported by Maine’s tribes, whose chiefs testified in favor of it at a congressional hearing on March 31, but was strongly opposed by Mills, who has rejected congressional meddling in the controversial 1980 settlement and even sought at one point to get House Democrats to delay a committee vote on the measure.

Mills’ position on tribal sovereignty has put 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.

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

Maine’s four tribal nations – the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Presque Isle-based Mi’kmaq Nation – have long sought clarifications to the Settlement Acts, a pair of federal and state laws passed in 1980 to settle a tribal land claim to two-thirds of the territory of the state of Maine. In exchange for an $81.5 million settlement – largely allocated to purchase land – the Passamaquoddy and Penobscots agreed to drop their land claims and adhere to a unique jurisdictional arrangement, including the restrictions on the application of federal Indian laws.

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