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Bill sought by Wabanaki tribes in Maine passes U.S. House

The Capitol is seen at evening, on Thursday, July 14, 2022 in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib
The Capitol is seen at evening, on Thursday, July 14, 2022 in Washington.

A bill that would allow the four Wabanaki tribes in Maine to benefit from new federal laws has passed the U.S. House of Representatives but faces hurdles before it can become law.

The bill introduced by 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden and co-sponsored by 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree seeks to address what tribal leaders say is a longstanding disparity between tribes in Maine and their counterparts across the country. The Wabanaki tribes have been largely excluded from more than 150 federal laws that have been enacted because of a controversial settlement agreement between the state and the tribes that was finalized in 1980.

The Advancing Equality of Wabanaki Nations Act would allow the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Mi’kmaq Nation to take advantage of any future laws that apply to other federally recognized tribes.

“Thanks to the hard work and perseverance of the Wabanaki tribes, bipartisan backing both in Congress and in Maine, and broad support across a range of communities, we have passed the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act through the House of Representatives,” Golden said in a statement. “What these tribes want is what all communities in my district want: economic opportunity for their families and safer, healthier communities. We have a long way to go until this bill reaches the president’s desk, but I have been honored to work with Wabanaki tribal leaders and my colleagues to advance this legislation.”

Earlier this year, Maine Gov. Janet Mills helped to defeat a major overhaul of the 1980 agreement that would have given tribes more jurisdiction over taxation, land use, criminal justice and other issues. While the Wabanaki community and its broad coalition of supporters viewed the bill as long-overdue recognition of tribal sovereignty in Maine, Mills said the bill was overly sweeping and could lead to more litigation rather than less.

Mills also opposed the bill proposed by Golden and Pingree and recently asked House budget writers to delay action on Golden's bill. But Golden was able to attach the measure to a defense spending authorization bill that passed the House on Thursday. The Senate would have to agree to the inclusion of the measure, however, in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act for it to become law.

But tribal leaders praised the progress on the issue, which comes months after a disappointing setback on the bill in the Maine Legislature seeking to overhaul the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

“The Penobscot Nation appreciates that the U.S. House of Representatives agrees with us that it is time to make some incremental change to the 1980 Federal settlement act,” Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said in a statement. “The Tribal communities in Maine have been left out of the Federal benefits available to the other 570 Tribal governments for far too long. We thank Representatives Golden and Pingree for their leadership on this matter, and we also thank the people of Maine for their overwhelming support of the Wabanaki Nations. We look forward to working with our senators on getting final passage through Congress this year.”

“After forty years, it is well past time for Congress to alter the Settlement Act to ensure that our people receive equal treatment under federal law as other Native people, ” Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians Chief Clarissa Sabattis said in a statement.