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Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) on Friday vetoed the most significant tribal rights measure this session, a bipartisan bill that would allow the Wabanaki to access past and future federal laws meant to benefit Indigenous nations.

This article was originally published in the Maine Beacon. 

Tribal leaders blasted the Democratic governor for her inflexible opposition to recognizing tribal rights in the face of widespread support. They also asked supporters to call their elected representatives to urge them to override the veto. 

To override a veto, a bill must receive two-thirds support from those present in the Maine House and Senate, which is possible given that the legislation was passed last week with veto-proof majorities in both chambers when a significant number of Republicans voted with Democrats. 

“We’re disappointed that the governor continues to block self-determination policies that would better the lives of tribal citizens and rural Mainers. Her constant insistence that she maintain control over the tribes is an outlier across the country,” Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said in a statement. “We’re asking to be treated fairly like the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the country.”

LD 2004, sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), 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.

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LD 2004 would change that paradigm, allowing the Wabanaki to access important federal legislation that would help the tribes develop economically, although it was amended in committee to gain Republican support by exempting several federal statutes, 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. 

An effort by Maine’s Democratic Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree to extend those rights to the Wabanaki at the federal level died late last year when independent Sen. Angus King opposed its inclusion in a congressional budget deal. 

The Mills administration also opposed the federal legislation. 

At a press conference on Friday afternoon, tribal leaders said the governor rejected the state legislation saying it had been moved through the legislature too quickly and she preferred to consider federal rights with the tribes on a case by case basis.  

“I believe the interest we share to do right by the Wabanaki Nations and Maine people must be accomplished through legislation that is clear, thoroughly vetted and well understood by all parties,” the governor said in her veto letter on Friday.

Francis characterized Mills’ argument that the bill wasn’t thoroughly vetted as “disingenuous” at the press conference, saying the legislation was a pared-down version of a bill considered last year, which was held back in a budget committee and never reached the governor’s desk. He also said considering rights one by one was unworkable and a way to maintain the status quo and the state’s veto power over Indigenous sovereignty.

“It’s disingenuous to say that this was a late submission, that we haven’t had time to review it,” he said, adding that Mills was more likely “protecting an old guard and old mindset” which includes corporate interests, such as the forest products industry.

“This is the right thing to do. I believe it’s good for Maine. I believe it’s good for rural communities,” Francis said. “And the only person it seems to not be good for is [the one in] executive office and the few constituents that they represent in the corporate arena that put out a lot of scare tactics and what ifs.”

Tribal leaders also took issue with what they saw as a flip-flop by the governor.

“The frustrating part is Governor Mills keeps moving the goalposts. Her office testified on her behalf in Congress, on Congressman Golden’s legislation, that this issue should be dealt with in the state. So we put in state legislation. Now she says this issue should be done by Congress,” said Rena Newell, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Sipayik. “We can only conclude she wants nothing done on this issue.”

Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant, president of the Wabanaki Alliance, said Mills is out of step with the rest of the legislature on tribal rights. Echoing the tribes’ Democratic legislative champions, several Republicans have voiced full-throated support for the legislation, such as Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris) who called the measure “a basic liberty issue.”  

“There has been an outpouring of support across Maine for Wabanaki issues,” Bryant said in a statement. “Mainers understand fairness and equity. They understand that this is not a partisan issue but a Maine issue. An issue that can lift up not just the tribes in Maine but rural Maine.”

Leaders expressed some hope that there was enough bipartisan support to overturn the veto.

“All I have to go on right now is the vote we had in both chambers,” Francis said. “I’m confident that our friends will remain our friends.”

Ambassador Osihkiyol “Zeke” Crofton-Macdonald of the Houlton Band of Maliseets added in a statement, “Thank you to the Democrats and Republicans who have supported our efforts on self-determination. Clearly, tribal issues are not a partisan issue, they are a Governor Mills issue.”

Sage Phillips, a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, urged supporters to contact lawmakers. “LD 2004 would pave the way for future generations to access federal laws and uplift our sovereignty and self-determination,” she said in a video posted to YouTube. “Now that a super-majority of Maine lawmakers have approved LD 2004 and Gov. Mills has vetoed our rights and sovereignty, we need you to call your lawmakers and ask them to continue to stand with the Wabanaki people.”

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