EDITORIAL: Momentum on recognition of tribal rights long overdue
Mar. 19—A sense of hope descended on Maine last week as the leaders of our state's tribal nations addressed a joint session of the Legislature.
It was the first such address in 21 years, and only the second ever of its kind — an indication of how poor the relationship between the tribes and state government has been. For a long time, elected officials didn't see it as a relationship at all.
That's finally changing. As the tribal leaders one by one made their case for sovereignty at the State House, there were plenty of lawmakers ready to enter a brand new era of tribal-state relations, one that could benefit both and lift up parts of the state that could badly use a boost.
At issue is the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, state and federal legislation passed to settle tribal claims on their ancestral lands. For $81.5 million in cash, the tribes dropped their land claims and agreed to a jurisdictional agreement with the state, one that is unique to Maine tribes.
Gov. Janet Mills, who did not attend last week's joint session, has opposed overhauling the existing agreement. In response, lawmakers now hope to get enough support to make a sovereignty bill "veto-proof."
This push has been a long time coming. As the tribes have argued for years, the status quo is not working for anyone — not the tribes, nor their neighboring communities, nor the state itself.
The 1980 agreement means that Maine's four federally recognized tribes — the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Nation, Houlton Band of Maliseets and Mi'kmaq Nation — are unable to govern themselves in the same way as the other 570 federally recognized tribes, who have had a much higher degree of self-determination as a result of federal laws passed since the late 1980s.
Because of the Settlement Act, many of those new laws don't apply to Maine tribes.
The tribes argue that while other tribes across the U.S. have been able to build up robust governments to provide much-needed services and drive economic development, Maine's tribes have been stuck, restricted by their dependence on a state and federal government that hardly make them a priority.
While economic growth for the Maine tribes has stagnated in recent decades, other tribes have become the "economic engines" for their regions, according to a recent Harvard study commissioned by the Wabanaki Alliance. The researchers say progress for tribes around the country has far outpaced that of Maine's Wabanaki Nation, and that counterparts have succeeded in building governments that provide a full suite of services and industries as well as jobs, infrastructure and revenue — not only benefiting the tribes themselves but their regions as a whole.
The economic activity on tribal lands comes from casino gaming, sure, but also a variety of other industries, among them tourism, defense manufacturing, forestry, agriculture, natural resources, health care and fish processing. Even if the casinos were taken out of the equation, the other federal tribes would be doing much better than before.
Between 1989 and 2020, the average per capita GDP growth for the other federally recognized tribes in the lower 48 states was 61%, according to the study. While that doesn't yet have them on equal footing with the rest of the U.S. — centuries of discrimination put the tribes far behind to begin with — it puts them miles ahead of the Maine tribes, which in the same period saw their economic output grow just 9%. The child poverty rate on tribal lands is much higher than in Maine as a whole, as is unemployment. Per capita income is lower, even though rates of higher education among the tribes compare favorably with the rest of the state.
Those numbers look a little better when tribes are compared to the region they are in, and not the state as a whole.
But that's because tribal lands are in and around some of the poorest areas of the state, all the more reason to give tribes more latitude. There's no doubt places like western Maine and Downeast would benefit from newly empowered tribal governments.
In community after community, recognizing the inherent rights of tribes has done just that.
Recognition is not only right for the tribes — it's right for Maine.