I recently returned to Maine from my home state of South Dakota, where I was researching the forced removal of Oceti Sakowin (“Sioux”) communities in the mid-20th century. For most non-Indigenous Americans, narratives of “Indian removal” typically center on Andrew Jackson and the infamous Trail of Tears in the 19th century. Yet the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples continued apace in the century thereafter, from the expansion of the National Park System to the damming of the Missouri River. The latter, culminating in President Kennedy’s dedication of the Oahe Dam in 1962, was so catastrophic for the proximate riverine tribes that the late Sioux historian Vine Deloria Jr. designated it the most destructive governmental act ever committed against Indigenous communities.

Despite shared historical legacies of removal and dispossession, Indigenous tribes in the United States confront distinctive contemporary threats to their political status as sovereign nations. Here in Maine, Wabanaki communities and their allies are once again regrouping after the legislative failure of L.D. 2004, which would have enlarged the scope of Native sovereignty beyond the strictures of the Maine Indians Claims Settlement Act.A recap of the recent legislative session appeared in a July 30 Press Herald story, noting that efforts to expand Wabanaki sovereignty were designed to “give Maine tribes the same rights and powers as the country’s other 574 federally recognized tribes.” Similarly, a front-page July 7 story on L.D. 2004’s failure commenced: “A bill to allow the four Wabanaki tribes of Maine to access the same benefits available to every other federally recognized tribe in the United States died.”

But let’s be clear, while L.D. 2004 would indeed have augmented Wabanaki sovereignty, it by no means would have granted the same rights and benefits of other federally recognized tribes. Not even close. In contrast to this blatantly deceptive rhetoric, L.D. 2004 promised a “sovereignty lite” status to the Wabanaki tribes in Maine. Even if the bill had become law, for instance, Wabanaki communities would still not be allowed to conduct gaming operations through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Under the act, federally recognized tribes can negotiate a “compact” with state governments, providing the latter with a revenue source while enabling tribal economic development. Regardless of one’s moral stance on gambling, there is no compelling reason that Wabanaki communities should not have the option to exercise the same gaming rights as all other federally recognized tribes.

Beyond gaming, L.D. 2004 would have continued to prevent the Wabanaki tribes from exercising sovereignty over environmental regulation on tribal lands and waters. While the Environmental Protection Agency continues to wield preeminent authority over pollution standards, its 1984 Indian Policy grants tribes agency in the design and implementation of air and water quality regulation. When EPA regulations are inadequate for tribal needs, federally recognized tribes retain the sovereign power to set stricter pollution standards than federal and state agencies.

Here in Maine, the Penobscot Nation is enmeshed in a lengthy and costly legal battle over Penobscot River water quality precisely because the Maine Indians Claims Settlement Act continues to restrict tribal environmental sovereignty. Preventing full Indigenous sovereignty over pollution regulation in Maine continues to foreclose potentially innovative tribal measures to counteract the disastrous effects of climate change.

Opponents of “full sovereignty” for the Wabanaki, including some in these opinion pages, argue that the fragmented patchwork of tribal lands in Maine would lead to jurisdictional and regulatory chaos. Yet checkerboarded tribal and non-tribal jurisdiction is a political reality, even in urban settings (e.g., Palm Springs) whose populations and economic infrastructure far exceed that of tribal landholdings in rural Maine. It’s past time for the political rhetoric to match the political reality in Maine: the same Indigenous rights for the Wabanaki as all other federally recognized tribes in the U.S., not the suffocated sovereignty promised by the Maine Indians Claims Settlement Act and L.D. 2004.

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