Tribal leaders call for expanded rights in rare appearance before joint session of Maine Legislature
Mar. 16—AUGUSTA — Leaders of Maine's Indigenous tribes used a rare address to a joint session of the Legislature Thursday to call for expanded rights to govern their communities.
"All we want is for state government to break decisively from the past and join the era of self-determination for tribal nations that has proven so successful throughout the rest of the country," Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation told lawmakers. "We are capable of self-governance and should be treated as partners rather than threats to the future of the state."
To that end, it appears lawmakers in both parties once again are working on a sovereignty bill with the goal of crafting something that would survive a potential veto by Gov. Janet Mills, who has long opposed tribal sovereignty.
"I think there will be a sovereignty bill," said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, adding that he was not directly involved in the talks. "It's still being worked on, negotiated."
He said negotiators were looking for a way to make the bill veto-proof.
"It would be really nice if we could get as much support as possible, frankly," Bennett said. "If we are confronting a gubernatorial veto, we need to back a bill that is going to get a two-thirds vote. That may dictate some of the details."
Five chiefs spoke Thursday during what was only the second State of the Tribes Address in Maine history. The first took place 21 years ago, although Thursday was the first time chiefs of all of Maine's tribes addressed the Legislature.
The sounds of drums reverberated throughout the State House Thursday morning ahead of the address as dozens of supporters assembled to advocate for the tribes. A group of men beat a single drum and sang in the Hall of Flags as people danced around them and a group of women tapped handheld drums and sang on a fourth floor balcony beneath the Capitol dome.
Besides Francis, the chiefs who addressed the House and Senate were Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik; William Nicholas Sr., of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk; Edward Peter Paul of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs; and Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. The tribes make up what is called the Wabanaki Nations.
"We are strong. We are resilient. And most importantly, we are still here," Sabattis said.
Sabattis thanked lawmakers for their efforts to expand the tribes' rights of self-governance and urged them to continue working toward full sovereignty. She also expressed support for other pending legislation, including a bill that would strengthen the state's requirement that Maine schools teach Wabanaki history. "At times, history can be uncomfortable, but ignoring it does not make it go away," Sabattis said.
The chiefs also spoke about the history of the Wabanaki Nations and their role in shaping the state and protecting its natural resources and in defending the country in conflicts going back to the American Revolution. Wabanaki people repeatedly fought for a country that didn't even allow them to vote until the 1960s.
"The Penobscot people have lived in this territory for 10,000 years," Francis told lawmakers. "We have forever been here and we will forever remain here."
Francis thanked the Legislature for its efforts to expand tribal rights and opportunities, saying the relationship with the state has improved dramatically in the past four years. But he and other chiefs also called on the state to do more.
"Limited sovereignty is not sovereignty," Nicholas said. "The opportunity to address the unfair treatment that Maine tribes have received since 1980 can be worked on and end with this legislative body of leaders."
More than 500 federally recognized tribes outside of Maine have more power to govern themselves independently, setting up their own courts, protecting their own lands and overseeing their own economic development efforts. They also have benefitted directly from federal programs and resources, while Maine tribes have had limited access to federal benefits because of restrictions in a 43-year-old legal settlement with the state.
Maine's tribes are treated more like municipalities than sovereign nations because of restrictions in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which ended the tribes' claim to two-thirds of state in exchange for $81.5 million to purchase the tribal lands.
A study released this year by the Harvard Kennedy School concluded that Maine's settlement agreement is hampering tribal economies, which grew only 9% from 1989 to 2020 compared to 61% growth for the tribes in the 47 other contiguous states. Tribes with more autonomy develop stronger governance systems, which can encourage investment and spur more economic opportunities, the authors said.
Mills, who has resisted calls from tribal members and fellow Democrats to restore full sovereignty to Maine's tribes, was invited to be in the House Chamber Thursday but did not attend. A spokesperson said she had a scheduling conflict and planned to meet privately with the tribal leaders soon. The spokesperson would not provide more information about the scheduling conflict.
There's nothing quite like drumming to liven up the State House.
Tribal members and supporters are here today for the first formal State of the Tribes address in two decades. pic.twitter.com/vwVuG1me5T
— Randy Billings (@randybillings) March 16, 2023
"I care for the health, welfare, opportunity, prosperity, and future of the Wabanaki people, just as I care for every person in Maine," Mills said in a letter to legislative leaders. "I look forward to the ongoing discussions between my administration, the Wabanaki people, and the State Legislature, and to continuing our work together to make real progress on behalf of the Wabanaki people and all people of Maine."
MILLS WOULD LIKE A MEETING
After the address, Mills' spokesman Ben Goodman issued a statement that mirrored the governor's comments to legislative leaders. Goodman said tribal leaders have expressed interest in meeting with the governor in her Cabinet Room and that the governor would like that meeting to take place "as soon as possible." No date has been set, Goodman said.
Although last year's sovereignty bill received widespread support and passed both chambers, it was never funded or enacted because Mills threatened a veto. Mills cited provisions that would allow tribes to purchase lands within existing municipalities and potential impacts on regulations for fish, game, water quality, land use, mining, labor laws, fire safety and building standards, among other reasons for opposing the bill.
Mills also opposed federal legislation submitted by Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, that would have let tribes benefit from future federal laws that provide funding or other support. And her administration recently opposed a bill from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross that would resume the printing of the state's Indian Treaty obligations in the Maine Constitution.
Golden attended the State of the Tribes Address Thursday, while the rest of the state's congressional delegation sent representatives. Afterward, Golden described the event as "very powerful."
"It's very important that the tribes were given the opportunity and the state given the opportunity to hear from the tribes," Golden said. "Obviously (it's) an historic day."
Mills has supported other bills backed by the tribes, including exempting tribal members from state income tax and giving tribes exclusive rights to online sports betting. She also signed a bill to address water-quality concerns at Pleasant Point, ban Native American mascots and acknowledge Indigenous Peoples Day on what used to be Columbus Day in Maine.
The first formal address to the Legislature occurred on March 11, 2002. Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township Gov. Richard Stevens, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point Gov. Rick Doyle and Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana addressed lawmakers and also called for changes in the settlement act so they could become more self-sufficient and generate additional revenue for education and health care.
"Unfortunately, the settlement act has not achieved its goals," Doyle said at the time. "It is a failed experiment in my mind."
During her speech Thursday, Newell, of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, described watching the first State of the Tribes event 21 years ago.
"I recall how proud I was to see tribal chiefs presented in full traditional regalia, each articulating their respective written speeches before the legislative branch," Newell said. "I was connected by the hopeful words that I heard, yet I was filled with more pride by the visual representation of my culture through the tribal leadership heard on that day."
After Thursday's event, House Republican leaders were split over calls to recognize tribal sovereignty.
Assistant House Minority Leader Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, said she would need to review the details on any proposed legislation before offering support or opposition. "We are certainly taking everything into consideration and hope to work in a positive manner in the future," she said.
House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said the event left him more committed than ever to tribal sovereignty.
"I think before we're done, we're going to have something really great, something we can all be proud of," Faulkingham said of the talks on a tribal sovereignty bill. Then he looked back over his shoulder as he walked back into the House chamber, smiled and added: "Something we can pass."
SOME REPUBLICAN OPPOSITION
Senate Republican leaders, however, signaled opposition. At least two Republicans would have to break ranks to overcome a veto on tribal bills, assuming Democrats stick together.
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, who did not attend the event due to a scheduling conflict, said he needed to learn more about what the tribes mean by sovereignty and exactly how they're not benefitting from federal laws.
Assistant Minority Leader Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said she's concerned that the tribes describe the settlement agreement as unfair, when it was something they agreed to and celebrated at the time.
"I'm always open for the conversation, and the thoughtful look at what we're doing, but it needs to be fair to the people who live in this state now, not based on an assumption that the agreement was somehow mishandled, shady, or done willy-nilly or without their consent, because that's not what history shows," she said.
Keim also is concerned about giving tribes economic opportunities that are not available to other people in the state.
"They compare themselves to other federally recognized tribes, but I compare them to other communities in Maine," she said. "I can't make an agreement that treats the people of Maine unfairly. I can't give to them more than any other non-tribal community, or more rights than the people of Maine have. "
Bennett, the Republican senator from Oxford, believes the state should revisit that agreement because its detrimental impacts are becoming clearer. He linked the issues within tribal nations, whether it's a lack of economic opportunity, education or public health concerns, with those in rural communities that many Republicans represent.
"I think Republicans are realizing the tribes have been held back and we need to move forward to unlock the avenues for economic prosperity for the tribes and their rural neighbors that are available if we modernize the settlement act," he said.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, hailed the occasion in written statements.
"Today was more than a joint convention, it was a powerful and historical moment when Wabanaki leadership presented Maine lawmakers with a compelling look both at our past and our future," said Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat who has led tribal sovereignty efforts in the Legislature. "By no means does the State of the Tribes Address forgive a shameful history of pain and tragedy, discrimination and injustice. However, it can signify an enduring commitment to perform the critical work of reflection, understanding and collaboration in order to continue to heal past wrongs and work towards a more just and equitable future."
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said the state has not listened enough to the needs of the tribes over the last 200 years and their willingness to participate is a testament to their leadership, character and commitment to getting the state of Maine to recognize and respect their inherent sovereignty.
"Symbolic gestures do not right decades, if not centuries, of wrong," Jackson said. "They do not erase the ugly and deeply painful history regarding the state's treatment of the Wabanaki Tribes, nor do they make up for the legacy of empty promises and their consequences. ... Convening for this purpose was about respect, reconciliation, and a commitment on the part of the Maine Legislature to do better. The health, well-being and future of the place we all call home and the people who live here depend on it."
Staff Writer Penelope Overton contributed to this report.