The Indigenous tribes in Maine are second-class citizens. While 570 tribes across the country access beneficial laws passed by Congress, Maine’s tribes have been blocked from accessing many and must seek state permission to access others. Since the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was signed in 1980, the tribes have not benefited from dozens of federal laws designed to support the public health, safety and overall socioeconomic issues of tribal communities.

A group from the Wabanaki Confederacy drums and sings April 20 before a news conference in support of the tribal sovereignty bills facing the Maine Legislature in Augusta. The Legislature’s failure earlier this year to enact a bill recognizing Wabanaki sovereignty makes it all the more urgent to pass federal legislation with the same goal. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, File

Sen. Angus King’s letter to constituents regarding his position on H.R. 6707, the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, is disappointing and out of touch with what is just and fair.

The piecemeal approach of Maine tribes having to lobby Congress to receive benefits and protections has real-life negative consequences. For example, Maine finally adopted the Violence Against Women Act in 2019, six years after it was passed by Congress. Should tribal women in Maine have waited six years to have equal protections? Having served on the Judiciary Committee during this six-year period, I was witness to the embarrassing obstruction we encountered in our attempts to enact this basic right.

Another example of inequity is the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, amended in 2010 to allow tribes to employ much-needed medical professionals licensed in another state. When the Passamaquoddy Tribe tried to bring out-of-state doctors to their reservation, the state of Maine said no.

These are just two examples of how the tribes in Maine are left behind, living under conditions that amount to human rights violations.

Mainers would be up in arms if the federal government allowed 49 other states to receive health care and domestic violence protections, but not Maine.


Sen. King says he’ll continue “to help facilitate discussions between the Tribes and the State … .” The problem here is that Sen. King is assuming the state means Gov. Mills. In April, the Maine House of Representatives voted to comprehensively alter the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and to allow the tribes to access federal laws along with other tribes. The legislation would have passed the Maine Senate, but Gov. Mills threatened to veto the legislation, so the Maine Senate folded like a house of cards.

Sen. King’s letter to constituents says, “It is important to note that The Settlement Act was just that – a settlement … .” The Settlement Act was not supposed to be set in stone, and Congress routinely reopens and amends decades-old federal laws. Even one of the drafters of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, Tim Woodcock, a staff person for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs and for U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen, said so in Maine’s 2007 Tribal-State Working Group:

“And I recognized that the MICSA and (the accompanying Maine Implementing Act) might well just be the beginning of an ongoing relationship that might well have a considerable amount of dynamism in it and it might well be revisited from time to time to be adjusted. There was a mechanism for that to happen and I have to say in retrospect it’s been a surprise to me that it really hasn’t been amended at some point, but I also recognize certainly that these are knotty issues.”

The Tribal-State Working Group members unanimously agreed that the Maine Implementing Act should be viewed as a living, dynamic document that had flexibility allowing adjustments warranted by changes in the tribal-state relationship. Former Maine Attorney General James Tierney said the same.

Forty-two years later, the settlement has not changed. It’s time to modernize the Settlement Act. It’s time to act. Sen. King’s postulation is that a “deal is a deal.” A deal is a deal? From 1778 to 1871, the U.S. government entered into more than 500 hundred treaties with Native American tribes. All of these treaties have been violated or outright broken by the U.S. government or its states. Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Sioux put it best: “They made us many promises, but they kept only one. They promised to take our land, and they did.”

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