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As a new legislature begins, Wabanaki tribes hope a long elusive goal is within reach

Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
Maine House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, joined Democratic House Leader Rachel Talbot Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson at an event held by the Wabanaki Alliance on the evening before Inauguration Day.

Tribes in Maine say they've received an unprecedented amount of support from state lawmakers in recent years. Exclusive rights to online sports betting. Legislation to address longstanding water quality issues for the Passamaquoddy tribe.

The Wabanaki Alliance, tribal members, state lawmakers and others gathered in Augusta Tuesday night — on the eve Gov. Janet Mills' second-term inauguration — to celebrate several years of legislative progress.

But there's one goal that's been elusive.

"The time has come to make a change," said Rena Newell, the newly-elected chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik. "Changes to the Land Claims Settlement, in particular the Maine Implementing Act, must come. You've seen four years of us. And often we've said we're not going anywhere."

Newell is referring to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which excludes tribes in the state from new federal laws that benefit other tribes in the country unless specifically directed by Congress. The Wabanaki tribes have been largely excluded from more than 150 federal laws because of that settlement agreement, creating what tribal leaders say are longstanding disparities .

"We have to overcome educational outcomes and health disparities and all of the things that Native Americans face all across the country," said Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis. "All we're asking for is the tool chest to do that."

Though restoring sovereignty to the Wabanaki tribes has proven to be difficult, Francis and other tribal leaders said they've made more progress than ever before, mostly due to the relationships they've built with Maine lawmakers.

"I will say in terms of progress, I see the minority leader here today," Francis said, motioning to Republican Billy Bob Faulkingham, of Winter Harbor. "It's good to see him. He's been on tribal land."

Said Faulkingham: "There has been a communication barrier between the tribes and the Republicans in the past. There's a large contingent of my caucus here tonight, and I just want you to know that that communication barrier is torn down."

Faulkingham said he plans to work with the tribes to help resolve their longstanding challenges.

"When I hear things like equality, self reliance, sovereignty, those are words that speak to the values of what it means to me to be a Republican," he said.

And Faulkingham said he sees the new legislature as an opportunity. Democratic state House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross said she too is optimistic.

"I don't believe in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result," she said.

Talbot Ross said Faulkingham was among those Maine legislative leaders who attended a joint meeting earlier this week with all tribal chiefs on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation.

"That felt like a different pathway forward," Talbot Ross said.

But the path forward could be difficult. A sweeping tribal bill that would have overhauled the 1980 Settlement Act and put Wabanaki tribes on the same footing as the 570 other federally recognized tribes never received a final vote in the state legislature last year, as a veto from Gov. Janet Mills loomed.

And legislation sponsored by U.S. Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree, which would have allowed the Wabanaki tribes to benefit from new federal laws moving forward, didn't make it out of Congress. The Wabanaki rights bill was the topic of discussion between the tribes and Mills this year.

But Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said he's not sure if the tribes have made progress during those discussions.

"There was a real opportunity there to work on the substance and make sure that there was a product there that everybody could have been proud of," he said. "But we can't make people come to the table. It's our hope that she will."

But for now, Francis said the tribes are building their coalition, so that if a new sovereignty bill does come before the Maine legislature, they'll have even more allies to rally behind it.