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New report finds Maine's tribes have suffered financially under Settlement Act

Protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House, Monday, April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Native American leaders in Maine aren't giving up on sovereignty but appear to be resigned that sweeping change is unlikely this year.
David Sharp
Protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House, Monday, April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Native American leaders in Maine aren't giving up on sovereignty but appear to be resigned that sweeping change is unlikely this year.

Three researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School have released a report that says Maine's Indian tribes have suffered financially under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

The act, passed more than 40 years ago, has had the affect of blocking federal laws that have helped the economic development of Indian tribes elsewhere in the country.

The report was commissioned by Maine's four Wabanaki tribes and is called “Economic and Social Impacts of Restrictions on the Applicability of Federal Indian Policies to the Wabanaki Nations in Maine.”

Maine Public's Irwin Gratz spoke about the findings with Professor Emeritus Joseph Kalt, who was one of the authors, and Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

Kalt: When we look at the characteristics, there's nothing special about Maine itself or the Maine tribes that would make you think, 'well, Maine is just going to have the poorest tribes in the country.' And yet, these four tribes jump out as way near the bottom of the barrel nationally. And the only thing we can find in common is that they share the impact of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

Gratz: The report does go through a very, very long list of things that the federal government has done over the years that Maine tribes have not been able to take advantage of. I'm curious as to whether or not some of those in particular jumped out at you, surprised you?

Kalt: One of the keys we see around the United States for the tribes that are succeeding at economic development for themselves and their neighbors, is the development of a fully rich system of just local government. And in this case, things like developing tribal courts, turns out to be a number one indicator of whether a tribe is successful in economic development. I won't go into all the reasons why but it basically is kind of a high school civics textbook. You need someone to resolve disputes, so that people think they get a fair shake, and so forth, both within a tribe and between your tribe and say, outside banks, or car dealers or whoever it might be. And so the absence of access to some of the funding, some of the powers that go behind just the building of local self government jump out at you as, the Maine tribes are behind the times. It's not their fault. They've just been excluded from what has been a very successful policy across the United States.

Gratz: There's also something in the report about tribes doing really well in proximity to large population centers. And tribes in Maine especially are not by definition near any large population center.

Kalt: Yeah, and that's an important point. And from a nerdy professor point-of-view, we run some statistics on that. When we isolate down on peers of the Maine tribes, with the same degree of access to larger population centers, those Maine tribes still end up way at the bottom of the barrel, which means other tribes similarly situated, both in terms of population, location and so forth, they're basically doing much better than the Maine tribes and, and so it's right, you're right. Being located near big markets helps. But even if we adjust for that the Maine tribes are big underperformers.

Chief Francis says the report highlights what the tribes have lost under the current system and what could be gained if it's reformed.

Francis: It does a really good job of not just showing, kind of, how a tribe that is self-governing and meeting all of the needs of its community and its people, it really has a trickle down effect on its neighbors. So the report really doesn't just show, you know, what the tribes lose here. It also shows what Maine citizens are losing in the neighboring communities, and those examples exist all over the country. And we've been trying to say this is not just about the tribes, flexing some sovereign muscle here; this is about the tribes wanting to be, obviously, in control of its own destiny, but also be a contributor in its regions in the state of Maine. And that's good for partnerships. It's good for the relationships. And there's a lot that the tribes can offer.

Gratz: There is, of course, as you know, a bill in Congress, which could perhaps pass this lame duck session, or perhaps could be reintroduced the next session, that would at least going forward enable the Maine tribes to begin to take advantage of federal acts that help Indian tribes. Are there particular provisions that you would hope to see if that act becomes law?

Francis: Yeah, you know, I think we can't do anything about the past, we understand that. We understand that, you know, trying to re-litigate the last 40 years, and 150-plus laws that have been passed by Congress is, quite frankly, a non-starter for the political powers that we need to partner with to get something like this passed. So what we really want to focus on is, how do we get a new generation of Wabanaki people living in very diverse, complex communities? How do we get a new paradigm in place where the tribes are working in more of a self-determining way, and are able to gather the tools that every other tribe in the country will have available to them going forward in the state of Maine to overcome the very things that look so disparaging in the report? Why is it that the income is less than half in our community compared to folks on the other side of the bridge? As the report clearly points out, the thing that we all have in common as tribes is these restrictions, and there'll be no magic bullet overnight. But this is about creating a situation where, in 40 years, this call is about a different conversation.