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As Legislature nears end, tribal leaders urge passage of bills amid broad support

Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe (right) leads several people dancing around a drum circle on Wednesday during a rally held at the State House by leaders of Wabanaki Nations in Maine.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe (right) leads several people dancing around a drum circle on Wednesday during a rally held at the State House by leaders of Wabanaki Nations in Maine.

Leaders of the Wabanaki Nation in Maine held a rally at the State House on Wednesday to both celebrate progress on several bills important to their communities and to keep pressure on Gov. Janet Mills as well as lawmakers to enact the measures.

While Wednesday’s rally wasn’t the largest of several held by tribal leaders and their supporters in recent weeks, it had a different feel from some others. That's because after years of frustrating losses in the Legislature, the tribes said they've picked up critical support from both lawmakers and the non-native public, particularly on the issue of tribal sovereignty.

"I just want to remind you that, historically, this is unprecedented what is happening here today,” Passamaquoddy language and cultural teacher Dwayne Tomah told the crowd after a traditional drum circle. “It's unprecedented the amount of support that we are receiving from this building and also the amount of support that we are receiving from the people of Maine,” . The people of Maine, their voices are being heard." (applause fades out)

But Wednesday's rally wasn't quite a celebration – at least not yet.

While one bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over their water source is on Gov. Janet Mills' desk, two others are awaiting final approval in the Legislature. And one of those bills, which would restore tribal sovereignty, appears likely to be vetoed by Mills.

That bill would overhaul the 42-year-old landmark agreement between the tribes and the state that, according to tribal leaders, has been an abject failure for their communities. The measure deals with a broad range of issues including taxation, land use, environmental regulation, criminal justice and hunting and fishing on tribal lands. Native leaders say it would put the tribes in Maine on the same footing as the more than 500 other federally recognized tribes by allowing more self-government. It would also end the practice, leaders said, of Maine treating their sovereign nations as mere municipalities of the state.

But Mills and opponents have warned that it goes too far and could have unintended consequences for businesses and municipalities that abut tribal lands.

Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Darrell Newell pointed out that Mills had pledged to improve relations with the four federally recognized tribes in Maine: the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Mi’kmaq Nation located in Aroostook County.

"It's up to her,” Newell said. “She has an opportunity to change her mind and be a good decent person, and truly live up to her words of tribal-state relations being repairable. It's up to her. We've done our work."

Mills is expected to allow the Passamaquoddy water bill to become law with or without her signature. Her administration also negotiated a compromise that would give the Penobscot Nation, the Passmaquoddy Tribe and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians the exclusive right to offer online sports betting in Maine. The proposal was controversial because Maine's two existing casinos wanted part of the online betting market. But the casinos will be allowed to offer in-person betting at their facilities in Bangor and Oxford, and the amended bill passed both chambers of the Legislature late Tuesday night.

The online sports betting bill as well as the sovereignty measure were both awaiting final funding decisions by the Legislature's budget-writing committee on Wednesday afternoon before they can be sent to Mills. But the vote on the sovereignty bill in the House was well short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a veto.

Still, Bert Polchies, a Penobscot Nation member who represents the tribe on Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, thanked those who helped get the bills to this point.

"We've been feeling for a long time the need for the changes to come,” Polchies said. “And a lot of us have had a lot of hope because of this, with this process. And we're grateful. I'm grateful."

The Legislature was trying to finalize its work on the tribal measures and other bills on Wednesday. But lawmakers voted to extend the 2022 legislative session by one day – with an anticipated return on Monday – in order to complete their work.