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The Maine House and Senate voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday evening to pass legislation to allow the Wabanaki to access past and future federal laws meant to benefit Indigenous nations, a monumental step forward for a campaign to reinforce tribal sovereignty that came despite staunch opposition from Gov. Janet Mills. 

This article was originally published in the Maine Beacon.

The House passed LD 2004, sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), by a 100-47 vote that featured a number of Republicans joining with most Democrats to support the measure. The Senate then followed suit, approving the bill in a bipartisan 26-8 vote, with every Senate Democrat voting for the measure along with four Republicans. Both chambers then passed the measure in subsequent enactment votes, sending it to Mills’ desk.

Mills, who has been a thorn in the side of several tribal rights initiatives — including a wide-ranging omnibus bill to recognize Wabanaki tribal sovereignty — has so far vehemently opposed LD 2004. However, if the margins in the House and the Senate hold, the chambers would be able to overcome a Mills veto. To override a veto, a bill must receive two-thirds support from those present in each chamber. 

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“We’re appreciative of the immense bipartisan support from the legislature,” Penobscot Nation Ambassador and president of the Wabanaki Alliance Maulian Bryant said in a statement after the vote. “This is a first step towards passing historic legislation not only for a more prosperous future for the tribes but for Maine [as well].” 

As Beacon previously reported, LD 2004 would correct what the tribes say is a long-standing injustice that stems from the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. That act is a jurisdictional arrangement between the tribes and the state that Indigenous leaders have long criticized for leaving the Wabanaki Nations with less authority over natural resources, gaming, taxation, criminal justice and economic development on their lands than 570 other federally recognized tribes.

In a presentation on the bill at a public hearing last month, Talbot Ross said that because of provisions in the Settlement Act, any federal law enacted after 1980 for the benefit of tribes around the country that impacts the application of Maine law doesn’t apply to the Wabanaki nations unless they are specifically included in the measure by Congress. The Wabanaki are the only tribes around the country that exist under such an arrangement, Talbot Ross noted.

LD 2004 would change that paradigm, allowing the Wabanaki to access important federal legislation that would help the tribes develop economically, although it would exempt several statutes from that such as the Clean Water Act, the Water Quality Act of 1987, the Clean Air Act, the Indian Mineral Development Act, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. 

Access to federal laws for tribes is something Indigenous advocates say is crucial, especially given that a report released last year from Harvard University found the unique control Maine has over the Wabanaki nations has significantly stifled the tribes’ economic development, which has had a negative ripple effect throughout rural Maine. 

According to a press release from Talbot Ross’ office from earlier this month, since the passage of the Settlement Act, 151 federal laws have been enacted that benefit every other federally-recognized tribe in the U.S. other than the Wabanaki. 

Given the urgent need for reform, tribal leaders on Wednesday commended lawmakers for passing LD 2004 and seeking to right the wrongs of the past. 

“Today signifies a landmark victory in the pursuit of Wabanaki self-determination, but also demonstrates the effect of an ever-growing momentum building across the state and across party lines,” said Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis.

Passamaquoddy Representative to the Maine House Aaron Dana also praised the bipartisan nature of the support for the bill, which is backed by both the Democratic leader in the House, Talbot Ross, and the Republican head in the chamber, Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor). 

Before the vote Wednesday, Talbot Ross said LD 2004 sends “a powerful message that the Wabanaki Nations inherent right to self-determination matters and will no longer be overlooked.” And on the House floor, Faulkingham said the measure is a matter of fairness, as it would simply put the Wabanaki on par with other Indigenous nations across the country. 

“I feel confident that this bill will accomplish exactly what it is intended to do, which is simply allow the tribes to benefit from the same federal laws that apply to all other federally recognized Indian tribes in the country,” he said. “Madam Speaker, this is something that nearly all of us agree should be happening. We aren’t reinventing the wheel. Five hundred other federally recognized tribes benefit from these laws across the nation.”

Other tribal leaders also celebrated Wednesday’s vote, with Passamaquoddy Chief at Sipayik Rena Newell saying LD 2004 will “contribute to a brighter future for tribal citizens and all of Maine.” 

Ambassador Osihkiyol Crofton-Macdonald of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians added that there is a growing willingness among Maine people and lawmakers to shift the state away from being an outlier when it comes to tribal policy. 

“The institutional obstacles that have prohibited years of socio-economic development are slowly being taken down,” Crofton-Macdonald said. 

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