Gov. Janet Mills met with five leaders of Maine’s Indigenous tribes for more than three hours last Friday. The meeting is intended to to be the first annual summit to discuss the rights and jurisdiction of tribal communities. From left to right, Craig Sanborn, attorney with the Mi’kmaqs; Vice Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township; Chief Pos Bassett of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik; Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians; Mills; Chief Edward PeterPaul of the Mi’kmaq Nation; Ambassador Maulian Bryant of the Penobscot Nation; Chief Billy Nicholas of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township. Courtesy of the governor’s office

Gov. Janet Mills has met with leaders from five Wabanaki tribes to discuss possible legislation for the upcoming session that would expand the rights and jurisdiction of tribes over their own communities.

The 3 ½-hour meeting at the Blaine House last Friday — the first annual state and tribal summit as envisioned in a law signed last year by Mills – did not result in a breakthrough in the long-running effort to restore tribal sovereignty. But the two sides agreed to keep open the lines of communication, something that did not occur last session as tribes sought to build legislative support to overcome Mills’ expected vetoes.

Maulian Bryant, a tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, said she was hopeful that the meeting, which took place on Nov. 17 with little fanfare and no publicity, will help tribal leaders work with the state and build on previous successes, including laws that granted tribes exclusive rights to the online sports betting market, provided tax benefits for tribal members and designated tribal liaisons through state government.

Bryant suggested that Mills continues to oppose sweeping changes to the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, which allows the state to treat tribes more like municipalities than sovereign nations, a status enjoyed by roughly 570 federally recognized tribes across the country. The settlement agreement ended the tribes’ claims to two-thirds of the state in exchange for an $81.5 million payment and a guarantee that state laws apply across the entire state, including tribal lands.

Rather than supporting sweeping changes to the act, Mills prefers incremental reforms to benefit tribes and has vetoed bills to restore full sovereignty to tribes and to grant tribes automatic access to benefits available under federal laws. She cites the legal complexities and potential for conflicts that would come with unwinding the 1980 agreement.

“I do think we’re still coming at it from different places in a lot of instances, but it’s encouraging that there’s dialogue happening,” Bryant said. “Taking sovereignty in incremental steps costs the tribes a lot of money and resources and time. We would prefer to amend the settlement act and mimic the efforts we have already made and were vetoed a lot of the time.”


Mills’ office said the governor would explore possible legislation for the upcoming session, including expanding the jurisdiction of tribal courts. She also will work with tribal leaders to meet with Maine’s congressional delegation to ensure tribes have access to new federal laws and benefits. The settlement act says that tribes in Maine must be specifically included in bills that automatically benefit other federally recognized tribes but may impact the state’s jurisdiction.

A spokesperson for the governor said Mills had a “constructive conversation” about economic development, renewable energy development, offshore wind, fisheries regulations, state and tribal licensing, and the application of federal law to tribes, among other things.

Mills said in a written statement to the Press Herald that she was grateful the tribal leaders agreed to meet with her.

“I care for the health, welfare, prosperity and future of the Wabanaki people, just as I care for every Maine person,” she said, “and I remain committed to collaborating with the Tribes, the Legislature, the attorney general, and Maine’s congressional delegation to improve the lives and livelihoods of all people in Maine, tribal and non-tribal alike. I am hopeful that our meeting, which I believe was meaningful and productive, will serve as a foundation for further discussions in the coming months and years that can lead to progress for the Tribes.”

Bryant said tribal leaders may seek jurisdiction over more criminal matters.

In addition to Bryant, other tribal leaders to attend the summit, according to Mills office, were Chief Pos Bassett of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik; Chief Clarissa Sabattis and Ambassador Zeke Crofton-MacDonald of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians; Chief Edward PeterPaul of the Mi’kmaq Nation; and Chief Billy Nicholas and Vice Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township.


Basset said in an email that he is grateful to Mills for a “productive, meaningful meeting.”

“This is what is needed to move forward together,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do on Tribal issues and it’s time that we open up this avenue of communication. I hope this was one of many meetings so we can put work into correcting some of the wrongs of the past.”

Other tribal leaders could not be reached on Wednesday.

In addition to Mills, other administration officials attending the meeting were Jerry Reid, the governor’s chief legal counsel, and Tom Abello, the governor’s legislative director.

The summit came less than two weeks after Mainers voted overwhelmingly to resume printing the state’s original treaty obligations to tribes as part of the state’s constitution. Those responsibilities remained in effect, but were removed from the printed constitution in 1876. The referendum vote this month, which passed with support from 74% of the ballots, was a symbolic victory as the tribes continue to fight to have the same rights as other federally recognized tribes.

In March, tribal leaders addressed a joint session of the Legislature for only the second time in two decades and used the State of the Tribes event to call for full sovereignty.


Mills’ opposition to tribal sovereignty bills has caused friction between her office and the tribal community. After Mills’ veto of a bill last session to grant tribes more access to federal laws, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis, who did not attend the summit, called Mills “out-of-touch” and said “her hardline stance in opposition to the tribes is something of a bygone era, though apparently just effective enough today.”

Last week’s summit seemed to be an effort to move beyond those old wounds and work with the chief executive in the final three years of her term.

Next session, lawmakers will take up at least one tribal sovereignty bill, L.D. 2007, which is sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross. The bill was carried over from the first session as a concept draft, details on what it might include are still not known, though the summary suggests it will include recommendations made by a bipartisan task force in 2020.

“We’re still figuring out what’s going to be in that bill and our strategy around that,” Bryant said. “I hope the process will be assisted by having better communication with the governor and her office.”

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