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Maine tribes’ yearslong campaign for sovereignty has stalled under veto threat. What happens next?

Protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House, Monday, April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Native American leaders in Maine aren't giving up on sovereignty but appear to be resigned that sweeping change is unlikely this year.
David Sharp
Protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House, Monday, April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Native American leaders in Maine aren't giving up on sovereignty but appear to be resigned that sweeping change is unlikely this year.

In this week's Pulse: The status of the tribal sovereignty bill and its political implications. 

The 2022 legislative session that’s all but ended will likely earn a footnote in state history — not for the $850 rebate checks soon going out to most taxpayers, but for the progress made on issues important to the Wabanaki Nations in Maine.

That progress did not reach nearly as far as tribal leaders and their communities had hoped when it came to overhauling the 1980 agreement that ended tribal land claims against the state but sparked decades of tensions over sovereignty.

And the question is whether the tribes and Gov. Janet Mills — who has been both a partner and an outsize obstacle — can continue to make progress now that it’s clear the sovereignty bill will not become law this year.

But the political and societal dynamics appear to have shifted in Maine, and not by small degrees, in favor of having tribes in Maine enjoy the same rights to self-determination and self-sufficiency as the 570 other federally recognized tribes across the country.

The push for sovereignty picked up strong, passionate support from non-native people who turned out by the hundreds for State House rallies, wrote letters to the editor and lobbied legislators more on this than on any other issue, according to some lawmakers.

More than 1,600 people or groups submitted testimony on the sovereignty bill alone. The proposal, LD 1626, would have granted the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians more self-government powers regarding taxation, land use, environmental regulation, criminal justice and natural resource management on tribal lands.

And the Wabanaki Alliance — a group created by the tribes in Maine in 2020 to educate others on sovereignty issues — drew the support of more than 90 faith-based groups, racial and social justice organizations, environmental and conservation groups and other nonprofits.

Tribal leaders acknowledged that seismic shift.

In a lengthy and carefully crafted statement issued earlier this week, after it became clear that Mills would not sign any version of LD 1626, five tribal chiefs wrote that the bill and the preceding work “have generated a level of support far beyond what any of us expected.”

The five Wabanaki leaders — Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation, Chief Charlie Peter Paul of the Mi’kmaq Nation, Chief William Nicholas Sr. of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township and Chief Elizabeth Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point — urged those supporters to stay involved as negotiations enter a few phase.

“So, while we have made significant and concrete progress in moving the needle, there is still more work to be done,” the chiefs wrote. “Time is on our side. Our people have lived with the negative consequences of the settlement act for over 40 years. However, we have made more progress in our sovereignty restoration efforts in the past four years than we did in the previous several decades.”

So what happens now?

It is important to note that the tribal chiefs did not tell legislative leaders what to do with LD 1626, despite the fact that those legislative leaders were asking for such guidance.

Instead, without saying so explicitly, the tribal leaders still made clear that that decision about how to dispose of LD 1626, and the political implications surrounding such a decision, rests squarely with the Legislature and the governor.

“We are going to continue to push for our sovereignty regardless of the outcome on L.D. 1626, and we acknowledge that this process now rests with state government and is out of our hands,” the chiefs wrote.

In other words: the tribes made their desire for sovereignty clear over the past three-plus years of intense discussion, and now it’s time for lawmakers and the governor to act.

A former attorney general, Mills has echoed concerns raised by current Attorney General Aaron Frey that the sweeping sovereignty bill could spark more litigation between the tribes and neighboring municipalities, industries and the state.

Although still technically alive, the bill has no likely path to becoming law because supporters lack the two-thirds votes needed to override Mills’ inevitable veto.

Further complicating matters, earlier this week Mills had reportedly threatened (according to several people in positions to know) to veto a second bill negotiated between her administration and the tribes if the Legislature also sent the sovereignty bill to her desk.

That second bill, LD 585, offers three of the tribes in Maine exclusive access to offer online sports betting in Maine but also contains tax exemptions for tribal communities and reestablishes a process for state agencies to consult with tribes on policy issues. While far, far short of full sovereignty, it would give tribes in Maine an entrance to the gaming ventures that have economically benefited so many other tribes across the country.

But the double-veto threat left the tribes and their supporters having to potentially choose between calling the governor’s bluff — and risk losing everything — or walk away with a partial victory. And as veteran Maine reporter David Sharp with The Associated Press put it, there were shadows of events 42 years ago that led tribal leaders to sign the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, an agreement that tribal leaders now say denied their communities their rightful sovereignty.

“Native Americans in Maine were put into a squeeze back in 1980,” Sharp wrote. “They could either take the $81.5 million deal to settle land claims, and give up some autonomy, or risk losing everything ahead of a presidential election. They chose the deal, and President Jimmy Carter signed the agreement. Four decades later, on the brink of changing that agreement, lawmakers and the governor put the tribes in a similar position.”

The Legislature is scheduled to return on May 9 to take up vetoes from Mills — and potentially LD 1626.

That seems unlikely now, even though the double-veto threat has largely been nullified. That’s because the 10-day window for Mills to sign, veto or allow the online sports betting bill to become law without her signature will have expired before the Legislature reconvenes in May.

Mills has already signed a third bill, LD 906, that grants the Passamaquoddy Tribe the ability to regulate its own drinking water source to resolve decades-old concerns about the current source.

Political implications of LD 1626

While the negotiations about what to do with LD 1626 were happening behind closed doors, there was plenty of discussion in the hallways of the State House about the potential political implications of how LD 1626 was handled.

Mills, a Democrat, faces what is expected to be a tough reelection campaign against former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. While the sovereignty push has won bipartisan support, it seems to have resonated most with Democrats, progressives and moderates — voters who Mills’ reelection campaign doesn’t want to alienate during a year when Republicans appear to have the momentum, at least nationally.

Of course, LePage didn’t have the best relations with tribes in Maine, either. In fact, the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe withdrew their representatives to the Legislature and scaled back interactions with the state during his administration.

There were high-profile disputes during the LePage years over tribal access to the highly profitable elver industry, environmental regulation and the boundaries of the Penobscot Nation’s tribal lands. And then-Attorney General Mills represented the state and the LePage administration in the court cases opposite the tribes.

But Mills was elected in 2018 on a pledge to improve relations between the state and tribes.

She recapped some of the progress made since then in a letter sent last week to tribal and legislative leaders urging them not to send LD 1626. Those initiatives include setting the nation’s strictest water quality standards on waters used for sustenance fishing, banning Indian mascots at Maine schools, expanding Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribal court authority for domestic violence cases and renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Those measures were “just the beginning of progress,” Mills wrote. Yet she warned of unintended consequences and more litigation if LD 1626 became law.

“I strongly believe that we can continue to work with the Tribes and the Legislature to make progress on health, education, economic development and jurisdictional issues through deliberate and considerate work that is grounded in respectful, mutual dialogue,” Mills wrote in her April 21 letter to tribal and legislative leaders.

In their joint statement this past week, the five chiefs cited that portion of Mills’ letter while saying they appreciated “the good faith dialogue and negotiations with the Governor” that resulted in passage of the online sports betting bill and the Passamaquoddy water bill.

“We need to remember that we started this fight on the backs of our ancestors and those who came before us, and our goal has always been to make progress for the next 7 generations that will come after us,” the tribal leaders wrote. “Our fight for sovereignty restoration will not end today. We want the conversation to continue and we will press forward to engage more Mainers on these issues.”

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings. Maine's Political Pulse is written by Maine Public political correspondents Kevin Miller and Steve Mistler and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.