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On MLK Day, Maine leaders acknowledge progress in tribal relations, but see long road ahead

maulian dana.jpg
Maine Public
File photo of Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana

Lawmakers, officials and civil rights leaders in Maine say underrepresented communities have a bigger voice in state policy-making today than ever before. But many agree Maine’s Native American tribes are still waiting for more recognition.

To commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, lawmakers and civil rights leaders took stock of what's working, and what isn't.

“We have to address the elephant in the room,” state Rep. Richard Evans (D-Dover-Foxcroft) said Monday at a virtual event hosted by the University of Maine Alumni Association and the Greater Bangor-Area Branch of the NAACP.

Evans referenced Maine’s relationship with indigenous tribes, which Penobscot Tribal Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana described as “messy” and “complicated.”

"When talking about the state of Maine and the tribal nations in Maine, there's been an enormous lack of trust, and that leads us to the situation we're in today,” Dana said. “I do think it is correct to say we're having some good dialogue around this at the state level. We've made some great progress in the last couple of years.”

Attorney General Aaron Frey said he too sees progress.

Over a very short amount of time there has been some significant dialogue between the Legislature and the tribal leadership, in particular, that will better align the relationship between these two sovereign entities,” he said.

While the discussions might be promising, Dana says Maine's tribal nations are still looking for concrete action. She said something has to be done about the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which effectively allows the state to treat tribes more like municipalities, not like sovereign tribal nations.

"All of that has caused, you know, chaos, tension, litigation, and I don't think anybody enjoys it,” Dana said. "I would hope not. I do think there's an appetite for moving beyond this. But for the tribes, the only meaningful way to do that is to amend that settlement act.”

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) is the lead sponsor of a bill, LD 1626, that would amend the 1980 settlement act and restore sovereignty to Maine's tribal nations.

"If we can amend the United States Constitution, understanding that that's an evolving document to live up to the best of our human potential and our democracy, then I would dare say to the people of Maine, and to the governor of the state of Maine, that there is no reason why we should not be able to amend the Settlement Act and restore sovereignty,” she said.

The legislation stems from recommendations from the state's Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations. The commission advises all three branches of state government and can submit legislation. Both Dana and Talbot Ross are the commission's co-chairs.

On one hand, lawmakers and leaders said the sheer fact that the commission exists and is spearheading legislative change is a sign of progress.

“What has been working is the increased platforms that have been provided to our most underrepresented and marginalized community members, whether it's advisory committees, panels, commissions and other settings,” said David Patrick, a social worker and racial equity teacher from Bangor.

Patrick noted the new process that the Maine legislature is piloting this year, which takes racial impact statements into account when crafting and considering legislation.  

Talbot Ross said the legislature will use racial impact statements to work on seven bills this year. Maine is not the first state to use racial impact analyses, but it is approaching them in perhaps a novel way, she said.

“It’s been relegated really to the criminal justice system. It hasn’t permeated into the other areas, such as labor and housing, education, the justice system and health and human services,” Talbot Ross said. "That’s in the area that Maine can be proud. We’re looking at the use of these statements so that we can mitigate the vestiges of racism through ending those disparities and not passing another bill and not creating another law in this state that does not help move us forward.”

Talbot Ross said the goal is to eventually embed racial impact analysis in all parts of the legislative process next year. Her bill on tribal sovereignty is pending in the state legislature.