In the absence of a political one-eighty, hope for a historic restoration of rights held by Maine’s four tribal nations is about to be dashed again.

Protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House in Augusta on April 11. Native American leaders in Maine are justifiably frustrated at the shirking of sovereignty reform in the name of eventual negotiation. David Sharp/Associated Press, File

Members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Presque Isle-based Mi’kmaq Nation couldn’t be faulted for feeling heartened back in July when a bill to expand their rights, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, passed the House.

We now know that the bill, which is designed to allow Maine’s tribes to take advantage of all future federal Indian laws, is unlikely to gain enough support in the Senate to be adopted.

Supported by the U.S. Department of the Interior and endorsed by both the National Indian Child Welfare Association and the National Congress of American Indians, the bill was hailed in testimony last spring by Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation as “intended to provide the Wabanaki Nations with clarity moving forward.”

That prospect is without a champion in the Senate.

Sen. Angus King opposes it, favoring negotiations between the tribes and the state of Maine and arguing that Congress shouldn’t be wading in on the terms of a land claims settlement made binding 42 years ago next month. “In order to modify the agreement, there should be another agreement,” King said last week.


Sen. Susan Collins’ position is that she has not yet taken one, last week calling the matter “extremely complicated” and adding that it warranted “thorough evaluation with testimony from experts,” the type unlikely to be achievable before the Senate is expected to adjourn Sept. 30.

As part of the Settlement Acts of 1980, the state demanded that no federal Indian law would apply to Maine tribes unless specifically included by Congress.

Dozens of laws that would have been highly beneficial to tribal communities in Maine – on everything from disaster relief, to violence against women, to tribal casinos – have had no applicability because of the agreement. It’s a unique arrangement that sets Maine tribes apart from 570 federally recognized tribes across America. Rep. Golden’s stalled bill, widely supported and strongly supported by the people it pertains to most, seeks to bring everything in line.

The anticipated death of this bill at Senate level follows the death of landmark legislation to recognize Wabanaki tribal sovereignty – and undo the restriction of the Settlement Acts – in the Maine Senate earlier this year.

This shot at securing self-governance for Maine’s tribes met its end in a similar fashion. Gov. Mills, whose record on tribal rights has otherwise been robust and impressive, argued instead for time and space to negotiate.

Mills expressed concern about unintended consequences of the bill, citing tribes’ acquisition of new lands anywhere in the state and the removal of roughly 300,000 acres of tribal trust land from state or local regulation.


Tribal representatives declared themselves encouraged by the level of support borne out in the state process – expectations were understandably low, going in – but discouraged by the outcome. Some seemed unconvinced that the alternative (ongoing dialogue leading to negotiation for a new deal) was as active as the governor intimated.

“I am concerned that those discussions are not happening often enough and are not resulting in any meaningful progress towards compromise,” Chief Francis of the Penobscot Nation told Maine Public in July.

In April, while opposing the state-level sovereignty package, Mills even suggested that better progress could be made on the Golden effort. Now, due to the same style of reasoning, the latter seems doomed to join the former.

The unfairness of the 1980 agreement generated fresh distrust between the tribes and the state. It would be strange if, in the face of the repeated passing up of opportunities to right the agreement’s wrongs, a new layer of distrust was not hardening now.

“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,” Elizabeth “Maggie” Dana, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s reservation at Pleasant Point (or Sipayik) explained last week. “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.”

The shirking of reform in the name of eventual negotiation is becoming harder and harder to take seriously. This disrespectful approach corrodes state-tribal relations. It militates against the very compromise those who choose to defer action claim to be focused on. What’s being referred to as prudence has a price.

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