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Historic bill on tribal sovereignty advances, but fate remains unclear

Maggie Dana, Rachel Talbot Ross
Robert F. Bukaty
Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, gets emotional while speaking with tribal members including Chief Maggie Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, left, following the House passage of a bill at the State House in Augusta, Maine, that allows the tribes to regulate their own drinking water and other water-related issues on Tuesday, April 12, 2022.

After three years of intense negotiations over tribal sovereignty, a bill aimed at overhauling the relationship between the state and tribes in Maine finally got a vote in the Legislature on Thursday. But while it received initial approval, the bill still faces an uphill battle.

The House voted 81-55 along almost strictly party lines — with Republicans opposed — to pass a bill that seeks to make major changes to a 1980 settlement that was, at the time, considered a landmark agreement between Maine and federally recognized tribes in the state.

The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act ended lawsuits that sought to reclaim millions of acres of land that tribal members said were illegally stolen over centuries, in violation of treaties. But tribal leaders say that instead of setting the stage for healthy relations, that 1980 agreement moved the state toward a policy of treating their sovereign nations as municipalities.

Speaking to her colleagues in the Maine House on Thursday, Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Rena Newell argued that the Wabanaki nations should have the same rights and privileges as other federally recognized tribes across the country.

"Let it be stated that the Wabanaki tribes have lived for more than 42 years to what I observe as the intended consequences of living with the limitations set forth in the Maine Implementing Act created in 1980," Newell said. "Mr. Speaker and honorable members of this House, the time to change this is now."

The House voted shortly after Newell's impassioned comments and roughly two hours of other speeches by other lawmakers, almost all of them supportive.

But it may not be enough.

Gov. Janet Mills entered office pledging to improve the state's relationship with tribal communities after representing the state in legal fights with the tribes during her years as attorney general. But she has expressed serious concerns about aspects of the tribal sovereignty bill, and the margin in the House is well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a potential veto.

"While the bill seeks to provide clarity, it creates more questions than it answers," said Republican state Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn, who voted against the bill.

Every Democrat but one voted for the measure and all but one Republican voted against, underscoring the partisan divide over the sovereignty issue.

In effect, LD 1626 would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to benefit from all of the "rights, privileges, powers, duties and immunities" afforded to more than 500 tribes nationwide under federal law. It deals with taxation and land use as well as hunting and fishing on tribal lands. The bill would give tribal courts more jurisdiction over criminal justice issues, and it would strengthen the tribes’ ability to set environmental standards on their lands.

But Libby and other opponents argued that the bill would lead to more uncertainty and more lawsuits. Libby says tribes could acquire new "trust land" anywhere in the state without any input from neighboring municipalities. She also said the proposal would potentially lead to different environmental and tax standards for tribal lands and neighboring towns.

"I do understand the gravity of the issue of sovereignty and I regret that I am unable to support the bill," Libby said.

But supporters dominated the roughly two hours of sometimes emotional floor speeches.

Rep. Tom Harnett of Gardiner, who co-chairs the committee that reviewed the bill, said Maine has stolen tribal members' ancestral lands, taken children from their communities and treated Indians as "less than people."

"We have tried to strip you of your culture, of your language, of the traditions that define you because we thought you should be more like us," Harnett said. "And we have broken and dishonored treaties and promises that we have made to you over and over and over again."

The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland, described Thursday's vote as an historic moment to right past wrongs.

"It is time to correct the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act," Talbot Ross said. "It is time to restore the Wabanaki nations' sovereign rights. To the people of Maine, I say, this is a moment of opportunity."

The sovereignty bill is one of several high-profile measures affecting tribes that are under consideration in the Legislature this session. Earlier Thursday, the Senate gave final approval to a bill that's aimed at giving the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over its own drinking water supplies. That bill is now on its way to Mills' desk.

The governor has also proposed allowing the four federally recognized tribes in Maine to have exclusive rights to offer online sports gambling. That bill could come up for a vote in the House and Senate as early as Friday. But it faces opposition from Maine’s two existing casinos in Bangor and Oxford, who want part of any online gaming in Maine, as well as some lawmakers who represent those communities.