Despite a heartbreaking loss during the last legislative session, Wabanaki leaders are renewing the campaign to restore the sovereignty and self-determination of Maine tribes – and state lawmakers from both parties have already shown they are willing to talk about it.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, House Majority Leader Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, and House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, traveled to Indian Island in the Penobscot Nation on Monday to meet with leaders of Maine’s four tribes.

Penobscot Nation elder Kathy Paul sings and drums during news conference in support of the tribal sovereignty bills in April 2022, in front of the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis called the meeting historic, saying it was the first time in his 17 years as head of the tribe that the legislative leaders, much less a high-profile Republican, had visited the reservations to conduct talks. More meetings are planned for next week.

“We haven’t talked specifics yet,” Francis said. “It’s been about approach, access, establishing ground rules, figuring out how we’re going to get there. Sovereignty remains our top priority, but we’re also pursuing the issue of equal access to federal beneficial laws. I’m very encouraged.”

Talbot Ross said Tuesday that she has submitted a sovereignty bill to the Legislature, which begins its work in earnest Wednesday after the inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills, but that it is currently a placeholder for whatever bill will come of leadership talks with the tribes.

Speaking at a Wabanaki Alliance event in Augusta Tuesday night, Francis talked about the progress made despite the defeat of last year’s sovereignty bill, which died on the appropriations table when it became clear that Mills would veto it and supporters lacked the votes to override her veto.


“Getting things over the finish line, winning and losing is one thing, but the friendships, not feeling alone, the coalitions, people saying you’re important, those have been invaluable,” Francis told the crowd of almost 200 people. “We’ve won a lot.”

He cited the development of a tax structure for Indian people living on the reservation and finally, after four decades of efforts and the opening of two casinos in Maine, the exclusive legal right to online sports betting throughout the state as big legislative wins.

The celebration was organized to mark the start of the new legislative session and celebrate new friendships on both sides of the political aisle. Faulkingham was one of 19 Republican House members in the crowd, which also included a bevy of lobbyists and lawyers.

Faulkingham elicited cheers from the crowd when he told them the communication barrier between Maine tribes and Republicans is being torn down. He said members of his caucus want to hear tribal grievances and try to solve their problems in a good faith way.

“When I hear things like equality, self-reliance, sovereignty, those are words that speak to the values to what it means to me to be a Republican,” Faulkingham said. “We have a lot in common. We can talk about hunting and fishing and, at times, our hatred of the federal government.”

Faulkingham said he was looking forward to the opportunity to work with the tribes and House Democrats to address tribal concerns. As he was leaving the event, Faulkingham said that he was optimistic that a new sovereignty bill could be built from scratch that could work for everyone.

Maulian Dana, a Penobscot Nation ambassador and president of the Wabanaki Alliance, said the tribes will not back down in their quest to reopen the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act to reclaim the right to access federal programs available to other tribes.

“We’ve hit a lot of roadblocks and we keep coming back,” Dana told the crowd after the Fire Wolf Singers kicked off the event. “I don’t think it’s because we’re hard-headed. It’s because we care so much about the next generation. We have no choice but to try to make things better.”

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