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Tribal leaders, other groups testify in support of bill to overhaul controversial 1980 agreement

Chief Maggie Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, right, speaks alongside tribal Rep. Rena Newell at the Bangor Daily News office on Jan. 30, 2020.
Natalie Williams
Bangor Daily News
Chief Maggie Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, right, speaks alongside tribal Rep. Rena Newell at the Bangor Daily News office on Jan. 30, 2020.

Lawmakers heard more than eight hours of testimony on Tuesday in support of a bill that would dramatically change a decades-old agreement between the state and tribal nations in Maine. The hearing comes at a time when the Mills administration has been negotiating a separate proposal with tribal leaders.

In February of 2020, leaders of tribes in Maine stood before state lawmakers to support a series of recommendations aimed at restoring tribal sovereignty. Two years and one global pandemic later, many of those tribal leaders were back – albeit virtually – along with more than 1,000 others who submitted written testimony in support of a bill to overhaul the state’s relationship with the four tribes in Maine. The bill, LD 1626, has also garnered support from a broad array of organizations, including religious coalitions, environmental groups and other nonprofits.

“For myself, I feel like I have poured everything I can into this and I feel everyone else around the table has done the same,” Chief Clarissa Sabattis with the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “I am as dedicated to the passage of these recommendations of this bill put forth today as I was at the beginning.”

Tribal leaders and their many supporters regard 2022 as a potential make-or-break year to dramatically re-write a 1980 agreement that they say has severely harmed their communities. That 42-year-old agreement was supposed to resolve the tribes’ land claims against the state. But tribal leaders say the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act has resulted in their communities being treated as “wards of the state” rather than the sovereign nations, and has stymied economic development on their territorial lands.

Darrell Newell, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, said it’s a “no brainer” that federal Indian law should apply to all 500-plus federally recognized tribes across the country, including those in Maine.

“It’s insulting to know that natives in this state have less rights than natives in other places just because the state of Maine insists that it be this way,” Newell said. “We have lived a 40-year mistake in the negotiations of this settlement. LD 1626 would undo this 40-year-old violation of our sacred sovereignty.”

LD 1626 is a sweeping bill that would overhaul state and tribal relations on a host of complex issues. The bill is sponsored by House Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and has the strong backing other legislative leaders. Based on the recommendations of a special commission, the bill would explicitly say that the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians enjoy the rights, privileges, powers and duties of every other federally recognized tribe.

The bill would also severely limit the state’s ability to regulate fishing and hunting on tribal lands and would expand the jurisdiction of tribal courts to handle criminal offenses committed on tribal lands. The legislation also gives tribes exclusive jurisdiction to tax tribal members or entities on Indian lands and creates a more robust process for consultation between tribes and state agencies. While earlier proposals would have allowed tribes in Maine to operate casinos or other gambling venues, LD 1626 does not delve into gaming issues. Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a tribal gaming bill last year.

Penobsot Nation Chief Kirk Francis says the word "restoration" is important.

"Nothing in this bill is about granting special rights to Maine's Wabanaki people,” Francis said. “It is about restoring rights after time has shown that the restrictions in the 1980 settlement act have been hampering the ability of tribal communities to reach their full potential of self-sufficiency."

Two years ago, the proposals ran into stiff opposition from municipalities as well as the out-of-state corporations that operate Maine’s two existing casinos. Although they didn't testify Tuesday, some of those same groups are expected to oppose the latest bill. Meanwhile, Gov. Janet Mills, who is a former attorney general, also opposed various aspects of the bill.

The governor’s top attorney, chief legal counsel Jerry Reid, was the only person to speak against LD 1626 Tuesday morning. Reid said lawmakers need to be careful to avoid ambiguous language that will inevitably lead to more court battles, just like the 1980 agreement has done. But Reid said the administration is not closing the door on the effort to change that decades-old agreement.

"While we are not able to support LD 1626 as drafted, I am happy to report that the administration and the tribes, with support from the attorney general's office, have made significant progress toward an agreement that would cover some of the issues addressed in this bill,” Reid said.

Under the governor's proposal, Maine tribes would gain authority to offer online sports betting. Mills is also proposing to offer relief from state income and sales taxes to the tribes and members who live in Indian territory.

Tribal leaders are welcoming the proposals but not giving up on the broader, more sweeping reforms. Chief Francis with the Penobscot Nation said he will support those efforts but made clear his tribe "does not view those discussions as a substitute or replacement for LD 1626."

Chief Maggie Dana with the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point agreed.

"These have been hard conversations,” Dana said. “Some progress has been made but much, much more work lies ahead."

More than 1,200 people and organizations had submitted testimony in support of LD 1626. Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee is slated to take up the Mills administration's proposals on Thursday.

Corrected: February 16, 2022 at 1:21 PM EST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that gambling and other gaming issues were included in the bill. They are not addressed in LD 1626.