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Wabanaki leaders, Mills administration optimistic about deal on tribal self-governance

The State House in Augusta at dusk on November 9, 2022.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
The State House in Augusta at dusk on November 9, 2022.

Legislative and Wabanaki leaders as well as the Mills administration said Monday that they are optimistic about negotiations to make "incremental" changes to state-and-tribal relations in Maine.

For the past four years, Wabanaki tribes have pushed hard on a series of bills aimed at overhauling a controversial 1980 legal agreement and regaining their right to self-government. But Mills has vetoed or undermined those sweeping sovereignty bills every year, citing concerns about regulatory uncertainty and sparking years of additional litigation.

Instead, Maine's Democratic governor has approved piecemeal changes to laws affecting the tribes. That reality was apparently top of mind for House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, as she brought together the tribes, the Attorney General's Office and the governor's office this winter to figure out the next step forward.

 "The experience of the past four years has shown that restoring sovereignty and self-determination and self-government back to the Wabanaki nations is a complex effort and likely one that will have be implemented unfortunately through incremental actions," Talbot Ross told members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Monday. 

Talbot Ross introduced another broad-based sovereignty bill, LD 2007, that picks up where last year's effort ran into Mills' veto pen. But Talbot Ross essentially asked the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Monday to set aside that version as the parties hash out an agreement on a more limited bill.

The revised version would likely give Wabanaki courts more jurisdiction on criminal cases on tribal lands. The parties are also negotiating ways to give the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes more flexibility to acquire additional land in specific counties — consistent with the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act — while requiring negotiations and consultation with neighboring municipalities on issues like taxes, services and law enforcement.

Thirdly, Talbot Ross said the parties are discussing ways to make it clearer when and why the state believes federal laws should not apply to the Wabanaki tribes. That is a key point of contention over the 44-year-old agreement as Wabanaki leaders accuse the state of blocking their access to federal laws that benefit more than 550 other tribes nationwide.

"I believe we are making good progress and I am hopeful, I am truly hopeful that we can get some of those issues — with your help — over the finish line this session," Talbot Ross said. 

Those negotiations were endorsed Monday by leaders or representatives from all four Wabanaki tribes: the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Mi'kmaq Nation.

"The reality is that the tribe does not want to see legislation brought forward that is only going to end in a veto," said Michael-Corey Hinton, an attorney and Passamaquoddy tribal member representing the Passamaquoddy leaders during Monday's public hearing.

"We seek sovereignty," Hinton said. "We seek economic independence for our people in Washington County and beyond. If that takes more time and more work with the governor's office and work sessions into the future, the Passamaquoddy Tribe is prepared to continue that work."

Jerry Reid, the governor's chief legal advisor, credited Speaker Talbot Ross for bringing the parties together to identify common ground and work through the thorny issues.

"That process is ongoing and I am very optimistic that we will be in a position at the work session to bring forward an amendment that reflects that process and bears fruit," Reid said.

Monday's announcement of a potential deal shows how much tensions have softened since last spring when Mills vetoed a broad sovereignty bill, LD 1626, that had received bipartisan support in the Legislature.

At the time, tribal leaders cheered the progress they had made but pledged to resume their sovereignty fight at the State House this year. Wabanaki leaders have said they've felt a groundswell of support among Maine residents for overhauling the 1980 agreement, which they contend has harmed their communities economically compared by most other federally recognized tribes.

Tribal leaders were then buoyed in November by overwhelming voter support for a referendum that requires the state to resuming printing a section of the state constitution spelling out the state's obligation to honor historic treaty obligations.

Although she blocked the sweeping sovereignty bills, Mills often says that the Wabanaki tribes have made more progress addressing their concerns during the five years of her administration than during the previous four decades.

Mills signed laws strengthening water quality standards on tribal sustenance fishing waters and banning Indian mascots at schools. She re-named Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples' Day, expanded tribal courts' jurisdiction and appointed tribal representatives to more state commissions. And just last year, Mills signed a bill that has given the four Wabanaki tribes exclusive access to offering online sports gambling in Maine.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis told lawmakers that he believes time — and most Maine residents — are on the tribes' side as they continue to the broader push for greater self-governance.

"I know that this has been a long fight with only incremental progress made in recent years," Francis said. "But we must remember that our people have inhabited these lands for thousands of years and we are not going anywhere."

Likewise, Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians said her tribe is willing to continue negotiating with the other parties.

"My job as chief is to do everything I can to help improve the lives of our people," Sabattis said. "Sometimes that means incremental changes, taking small steps forward. Even though we wish those steps were a little bit bigger, it's still progress."

Any compromise bill could still face opposition from some interest groups or lawmakers. But with an endorsement from Gov. Mills and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, a compromise seems unlikely to face stiff opposition in a Democratic-controlled Legislature that has endorsed more sweeping sovereignty bills in recent years.