As a legislator who is also a historian, I’ve been honored to weigh in on a number of bills that have improved the state’s relationship with Maine tribes. Maine’s history with the tribes has been a long ugly one of broken promises, and as a result, there’s also a history of poverty, oppression and discrimination within our Wabanaki communities.

At the same time, there is a long history of resilience. As Penobscot Ambassador Maulian Bryant has stated, “for hundreds of year, we have fought for survival and identity. … Patience and determination are nothing new to us.”

We’ve made progress on many of these issues. While some laws are more symbolic — identifying Indigenous Peoples’ Day for instance — other laws make more substantive changes such as increased access to clean water, better and more appropriate prosecution of domestic violence on tribal lands, and increased tribal membership on a variety of state advisory committees and commissions.

Still to be resolved is the issue of tribal sovereignty, which the Legislature will tackle next year. While it can be difficult to understand the intricacies of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the unique status of Maine tribes, every Maine voter gets the chance to weigh in on a very specific piece of tribal-state relations in the Election on Nov. 7.

Question 6 is a proposed amendment to the Maine Constitution. It would restore language to printed versions of the state Constitution, language that obligates the State of Maine to honor treaties that Maine Tribes made with Massachusetts before Maine statehood in 1820.

In 1875, a Constitutional commission recommended that several changes to the state Constitution, including those specific to its separation from Massachusetts, would no longer be included in printed copies of the Maine Constitution. One such section, Section 5 of Article X, dealt specifically with the Articles of Separation, which included language that required Maine to assume all obligations with respect to the “Indians within … Maine, whether the same arise from treaties or otherwise.”


The Legislature approved the Constitution’s “clean-up.”. Because the actual Articles of Separation could not be removed from the Constitution without a vote of Massachusetts and Maine legislatures, the decision was made to simply omit the language from printed versions of the Constitution. Article 10, Section 5 remains in force as a part of the Constitution. Question 6 seeks to put that language back into printed versions of the Constitution. This had been attempted in the 1960s and as recently as 2017.

The big historical question is this: Why was this language omitted, and did it result in any changes to Maine-Tribal relations?

Judson Esty-Kendall, a long-time attorney for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, concluded in 2021 that there was no nefarious reason. He stated it well: “Maine does not appear to have intended to hide its obligation to the Indians from public view. As a practical matter, Maine already believed that … it had reduced those obligations to a minimum.” In other words, Maine’s treatment of the tribes was already discriminatory and dismissive. Changes to the printed versions of the Constitution did not change that attitude.

Colin Woodard, in his 2014 Portland Press Herald series, “Unsettled: Triumph and Tragedy in Maine’s Indian County,” implied that, even if the actions taken in 1876 were merely “clerical,” the erasure of these elements of the Maine Constitution resulted in the complete forgetting of any state obligations to the tribes.

It was debates like these that persuaded my colleagues and I in the Legislature to unanimously approve of sending this question to Maine voters.

Symbolic or not, including this language in printed copies of the Maine Constitution may be a good faith effort by the State to pronounce publicly, in its foundational document, that it had — and continues to have — an obligation to Maine’s foundational people.

Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, represents District 49 in the Maine House, which includes the towns of Arrowsic, Georgetown, Phippsburg, West Bath and Woolwich.

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