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On Monday, May 2, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed into law a bill that brings the state’s tribes closer to sovereignty, after halting a more comprehensive bill the previous  week.

For the last 42 years, since the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (the Settlement Act) was enacted in 1980, Maine has reserved some powers over the state’s four federally recognized tribes, known collectively as the Wabanaki Nations, that would normally be held by the federal government. That distinction limits tribes’ authority in setting their own tax structures, court jurisdictions, regulations on fishing and hunting on tribal land, land use and acquisition rights, and access to federal funding.

Congress, in the Settlement Act, authorized the state and tribes to reach jurisdictional agreements and amend the act at the state level. In 2019, the state legislature formed a bipartisan task force to develop comprehensive reform of the Settlement Act, and suggest 22 recommendations that were then rolled into a bill—LD 1626.

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Mills, however, consistently told the tribes that she had concerns over the bill. After the House passed it on Apr. 18,  she asked the state Senate to table the bill, which it did by a 16-13 vote on Apr. 25. The Legislature instead passed a narrower bill, LD 585, which gives the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe more jurisdiction over prosecuting criminal offenses on their reservations. That was the bill Mills signed on May 2. 

“I do not wish to have a confrontation over LD 1626,” Mills wrote in a letter to tribal leaders dated April 21. “It would serve no constructive purpose and only inflame emotions on all sides of the discussion, while likely harming the positive and constructive relationship we have worked so hard to build.”

Mills’ main concerns, she wrote, were that changes to the jurisdictional relationship between the state and tribes would result in more litigation, and that tribes would be able to acquire new territory, “even within existing towns and cities,” without the municipality’s consent. 

Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana told Native News Online that some of Mills’ concerns indicate that there is a lot more educating that needs to happen.

“The Trust Land process of putting feeling into the trust of the federal government, it does have a lot of safeguards for states and municipalities,” Dana said. “I think the narrative that's put out there sometimes is that the tribe could go into any major city, buy half of it, put it into tribes immediately, and then have complete control. And that's just not the case.”

The Wabanki, Dana added, feel that amendments to the law will clear up some of the jurisdictional barriers, and thus lead to less litigation, especially since the Penobscot Nation has been in near-constant litigation for the better part of the last 42 years.

On Apr. 18, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Penobscots’ appeal of a lower-court  decision rejecting their claims to ownership of the waters of the Penobscot River, which surrounds their island reservation. The suit, filed 10 years ago, was one of the tribe’s longest court battles with the state.

Tribal leaders say that, while they’re grateful for the progress afforded in the smaller sovereignty bill, they don’t see it as a replacement for their larger push.

“I’ve seen (LD 585) being called a compromise or a consultation, and I would resist characterizing it like that,” Dana said. “585 is very separate and distinct in our overall efforts and push to amend that settlement act and really have our sovereignty recognized.”

The bill includes tax exemptions for tribal members working and doing business on tribal lands; provisions for tribal-state collaboration; and an allowance for tribal gaming.

In a joint statement on April 26, tribal chiefs expressed “disappointment” that the Settlement Act overhaul bill had stalled after three years of work, but also recognized the significant progress made by the tribes.

“Time is on our side,” the statement reads. “Our people have lived with the negative consequences of the Settlement Act for over 40 years. However, we have made more progress in our sovereignty restoration efforts in the past four years than we did in the previous several decades.”

On Apr. 22, Gov. Mills signed another long-negotiated bill that gives the Passamaquoddy tribe the ability to regulate their own drinking water. After it passed both the House and Senate, Mills called for a special meeting with tribal leaders to negotiate the language of the bill—specifically to add language that the tribe’s jurisdiction does not extend beyond its territorial boundaries. 

Tribal chiefs said that, while they appreciate “the good faith dialogue and negotiations with the governor” that resulted in the two bills benefiting Wabanaki Nations, they don’t go far enough, and the tribes will continue to fight for their sovereignty. 

“Neither of those bills represent sovereignty for all Wabanaki Nations and people in Maine, but each does provide important benefits that will strengthen our respective communities.”

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
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Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 U.S. journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the Alaskan Arctic region. Prior to that, she served as lead reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.