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Record Turnout in Support of Tribal Sovereignty Bill that Would Make Changes to the Settlement Act

For more than eight hours on February 15th, the Maine Legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard a record-breaking number of testimonies, including from Wabanaki Tribal leaders and community members, and an expansive number of organizations, in support of the long-awaited LD 1626 An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act. This bill would restore the Sovereignty of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet Nations to the status all other 570 federally recognized Tribes enjoy.

Photo by Dawn Neptune Adams/Sunlight Media Collective, Spring 2020: The unanimous “yes” vote in the Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary to accept the findings and recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Implementing Act of the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement of 1980 and the Mi’kmaq Settlement Act of 1989, and to craft legislation to be proposed to the Second Regular Session of the 129th Legislature
There were close to 1700 written testimonies submitted and over 100 live testimonies in support, with only a single live testimony in opposition: Governor Mills’ chief legal counsel and former commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Jerry Reid. The schools at Sipayik, Motahkomikuk and the Penobscot Nation were tuned into the proceedings online.  

When the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet Nations signed the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA), it was initially a land claims case. The U.S. Department of the Interior found that the Tribes had valid claim to two-thirds of Maine’s landmass based on several unratified treaties from the late 1700s-early 1800s. “[MICSA] was meant to be an ever-evolving agreement with an option for the tribes and the state to come to the negotiating table via the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission,” explains Penobscot citizen Dawn Neptune Adams. Instead, the Implementing Act that accompanies MICSA has been “used as a mechanism for Maine to assert jurisdiction over the Wabanaki tribes, and the state has refused to allow changes to the document. It hasn’t been altered since 1980.”  

According to the U.S. Constitution’s ‘commerce clause,’ federally recognized Tribes deal with Congress in a government-to-government relationship, falling under Tribal and Federal jurisdiction (not State jurisdiction). Maine’s interpretation of the Settlement Acts views the Penobscot, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy Tribes as exceptions to this rule.   

The Implementing Act in its current state has greatly harmed the Wabanaki community for forty years by barring Tribal governments from exercising criminal, civil, and regulatory authority in their own territory like all other Federally Recognized Tribes. Throughout the hearing, Tribal leaders and others emphasized the importance of modernizing the Implementing Act to fix these issues, including the  22 Recommendations developed over three years of research and collaboration by a Task Force made up of bipartisan legislative representatives, the Tribal Chiefs of the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy at Sipayik and Motahkomikuk, the Houlton Band of the Maliseets, and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, and ex-officio representation from the State Attorney General’s and Governor’s Offices and the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC).  The recommendations include changes to policy regarding trust land acquisition, use of land and natural resources, hunting and fishing, taxation, criminal jurisdiction, civil jurisdiction, and the applicability of federal laws to the Tribes within Maine. LD 1626: An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act is sponsored by Representative Rachel Talbot-Ross, who introduced it as “a group effort of many people who strongly support the restoration of powers and authorities to the Wabanaki Nations.”  

“The Settlement Acts were supposed to focus on resolving the land claims,” says Talbot-Ross, “but somehow, they turned into an effort by the State to severely restrict the inherent sovereign rights of the Wabanaki Nations[…] The past 40 years of living under the Settlement Acts system has shown that the State has benefited far more from the system than the Tribes.”  

Jerry Reid’s statement in opposition to the bill suggests that Governor Mills is prepared to veto LD 1626 despite indisputable and overwhelming support from the public. His testimony included vague warnings about changing “substantial portions” of the Implementing Act, cautioning that “the legislature cannot unilaterally repeal or amend new language in the future, even if it becomes clear that those amendments contain mistakes or reflect misunderstandings, unless the tribes consent to those amendments.”   

“We are not able to support Ld1626 as drafted,” he continued, and pointed to other “collaborations” with Tribes to “cover some of the issues addressed in this bill.” This is in reference to the recently negotiated LD 585, which the Tribes have been clear does not subsume the changes sought in LD 1626.  

Reid’s testimony suggests that the Governor’s office is particularly unwilling to restore the Sovereignty that would disable the state from making  “unilateral” decisions over Tribes and require their consent.  

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis reminded the audience that the Wabanaki sovereignty preexists the U.S. Constitution and the 1980 Settlement Acts. “Prior to the Settlement Act we had the same rights, privileges, powers and immunities as any other Federally Recognized Tribal Nation in this country… The bulk of the Settlement Act focused on restricting the civil, criminal and regulatory authority of the Tribes and essentially sought to continue the paradigm of treating the Tribes as wards of the state.”   

The Task Force recommendations and LD 1626 would restore these rights and authorities to what they were before 1980, recognizing the Tribes’ inherent right to self-govern. State interpretation has excluded the Penobscot, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy from over 160 Federal policies affecting Tribal Nations that have passed since 1980, including the Federal Gaming Regulatory Act, the Federal Stafford Act, portions of the Violence Against Women Act, and portions of the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act.   

“[These are] all very serious pieces of legislation, but only a small sample of what we’ve been denied over the years,” says Chief Francis. Passamaquoddy Chief Maggie Dana added “The Task Force recommendations seek to right many wrongs that occurred in our past and restore our sovereignty. While we must never forget the past, we must work together to build a better future for our Tribal communities and for all people in Maine. Our beliefs are rooted in the relationship we have with one another, and in our connection to this earth. Our ancestors were always willing to come forward to help, to share, and to be good neighbors.”   

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold work sessions on LD 1626, 906, 585 and 1907 on Tuesday, March 3 and Thursday, March 8th. The Committee plans to hold a vote on the bills March 8th.

To ensure that the Wabanaki Tribes receive fair and equal treatment, please contact your legislators to support LD1626 and encourage them to override a potential veto from Janet Mills.  

Written by Sunlight Media Collective members Mali Obomsawin and Lokotah Sanborn, with contribution from Dawn Neptune Adams, Andrea DeFrancesco, Meredith DeFrancesco, Maria Girouard, Nickie Sekera

Photo by Dawn Neptune Adams/Sunlight Media Collective, Spring 2020: The unanimous “yes” vote in the Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary to accept the findings and recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Implementing Act of the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement of 1980 and the Mi’kmaq Settlement Act of 1989, and to craft legislation to be proposed to the Second Regular Session of the 129th Legislature.
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