For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been a volunteer helping the Wabanaki Alliance educate Mainers about the need for securing full sovereignty of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq and Maliseet tribes in Maine. During this time, I’ve witnessed a sea-change in attitudes about inherent injustices in the state’s relationship with the tribes.

It’s been absolutely heartening to see citizens from all corners of the state become active participants in supporting the tribes during the 130th Legislature this past year.

Thanks to this unprecedented public support, Gov. Janet Mills reluctantly signed into law a bill allowing the Passamaquoddy people of Sipayik to exercise their sovereign right to secure clean drinking water on their own land near Eastport. She also initiated a bill that became law giving the tribes access to revenues from online sports gambling and beneficial tax provisions for tribal members. This legislation, though beneficial, was not a top priority to the tribes because it did not place them on the same footing as the other 570 federally recognized tribes in 49 other states.

With support from their citizen allies, the tribes will continue efforts to restore the full rights of sovereignty they’d be entitled to under federal Indian law if not for restrictive language in the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Acts equating their status to “municipalities.” In addition to pursuing legislation at the state level, the tribes and their allies are encouraged by the recent 329-101 bipartisan vote in the U.S. House of Representatives approving H.R. 6707 as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

This bill removes jurisdictional language in the 1980 acts that’s been used time and time again by the state to deny Wabanaki tribes access to federal programs, funds and initiatives benefiting 570 other federally recognized tribes across the country. It’s sponsored by 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden and co-sponsored by 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, both Democrats.

Earlier this summer I wrote Sen. Angus King urging him to support what seems to me to be a straightforward matter of fairness and equity under federal Indian laws. H.R. 6707 simply amends the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act so that the Wabanaki tribes can benefit from future federal laws that apply to the other federally recognized tribes. That’s it.


I asked him to consider a few inequities cited by tribal leaders:
• Why should the tribes be denied access to Stafford Act funds intended to address the opioid epidemic in their communities?
• Why should the tribes be blocked from recruiting licensed medical professionals under the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was permanently authorized in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act?
• Why did Maine block the tribes for years from using the federal Violence Against Women Act to enhance public safety in Wabanaki communities, efforts repeatedly stymied until a new state law was passed after time-consuming and costly negotiations between the tribes and the state?

I’m disappointed that Sen. King essentially gave a 40-year-old answer to these questions, one that aligns with views expressed by Gov. Janet Mills. He replied: “It is important to note that The Settlement Act was just that — a settlement — which entailed benefits and burdens to each of the parties.”

Really? Even the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times to make it more just and equitable for all U.S. citizens. But if we accept Sen. King’s statement as the final word — and reject the solutions going forward made possible by H.R. 6707 — the Wabanaki tribes will continue being excluded from benefits intended by Congress for federally recognized tribes across our nation.

Imagine if the transfer of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station by the Navy to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority had been accompanied by language excluding our hometown from numerous state programs benefiting 450 other Maine towns and cities? I doubt Brunswick residents would rest easy if that had been the ‘burden’ accompanying the benefits we received when those 2,100 acres of prime real estate and a modern airport were transferred more than a decade ago.

We’d be calling on our governor and congressional delegation to correct that inequity post-haste.

Along with more than 2,000 other Mainers who wrote letters supporting H.R. 6707, I believe it’s time — in fact, long past time — to remove jurisdictional obstacles that have kept the Wabanaki tribes from full self-governance for more than 40 years. Equity and fairness for the Wabanaki tribes are at the heart of H.R. 6707.

I urge both of our U.S. senators to do what’s right and pass this legislation when it comes to a vote. The time is now to stand by our Wabanaki neighbors. When they prosper, Maine prospers.

James McCarthy is a retired journalist who lives in Brunswick. He’s been a member of the Committee on Indian Relations of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine since 2021.

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