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Wabanaki tribes criticize Maine Sen. King after proposal to let them benefit from federal laws fails

Various state and tribal officials spoke at a rally for Wabanaki rights at the Maine State House on Indigenous Peoples' Day, which was streamed online.
Wabanaki Alliance
via Facebook
Various state and tribal officials spoke at a rally for Wabanaki rights at the Maine State House on Indigenous Peoples' Day, which was streamed online.

The alliance representing Wabanaki tribes in Maine is criticizing independent U.S. Sen. Angus King for blocking an initiative that would have allowed the tribes to benefit from future federal Indian laws. Supporters framed the proposal as a necessary update to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which Maine's tribal leaders have long blamed for limiting their authority over natural resources, gaming, taxation, criminal justice and economic opportunities.

The settlement act excludes tribes in Maine from new federal laws unless specifically directed by Congress.

The proposal introduced by 2nd District Congressman Jared Golden, and backed by fellow Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, would have changed that provision going forward, allowing the Wabanaki to benefit from new laws that apply to 570 other federally recognized tribes.

The measure cleared the House over the summer as part of a defense reauthorization act, but it was not included in the sprawling $1.7 trillion federal funding bill now poised to clear Congress.

And tribal leaders, including Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis, singled-out Sen. King for working to block the measure as budget writers finalized the spending initiative.

"The main reason for the legislation's exclusion is due to strong opposition from Senator Angus King. This is unfortunate because tribal leaders had directly conferred with Senator King as the legislation was being drafted and purposefully drafted the bill narrowly to address Senator King’s concerns," Francis said.

"It's hard not to suspect that the senator's opposition to the legislation is political in nature and not substantive. The Wabanaki bill would have been a meaningful step towards modernizing an archaic settlement act, and it would have opened doors for much-needed economic opportunities for our tribal communities and rural Maine. It was supported by the Maine people, the Maine Legislature, and several cities and towns."

Francis added in an interview Wednesday, "When you have that going on in a body that is extremely deferential to the jurisdiction of a home state senator, the bill never had a chance."

A spokesman for King did not address the Wabanaki Alliance's specific assertion that the senator worked against the bill, but issued a statement reiterating King's reluctance to support the proposal and what he says are its unintended consequences.

"Senator King has serious concerns about the legislation in its current form and the unintended consequences it poses for the state of Maine," spokesman Matthew Felling said in an email. "Moving forward, he is committed to continuing to work with the Tribes on specific issues involving the application of federal tribal laws in Maine, such as the Stafford Act and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act – much like he did with the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act."

Francis dismissed that rationale as a defense of the current relationship between Maine and the Wabanaki, adding that the "unintended consequences" argument is a "scare tactic."

"Congress doesn't work in a way to pass laws to benefit Indian tribes to the detriment of states," he said. "They work with states."

King's position on the bill matched that of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who blocked a sweeping tribal sovereignty bill in the Maine Legislature last spring.

Her administration also urged Congress to delay Golden's bill and submitted testimony against it earlier this year, arguing that it effectively amended the settlement act without the consent of one of its signatories, the state of Maine.

Francis says such arguments from King and Mills reveals the state's reluctance to change a four-decade old agreement that gives disproportionate power to the sitting governor.

"So really what it (King's statement) really says is, 'we want the status quo and we want to be able to have the say on whether these things (new federal laws) apply or not,'" Francis said. "And this bill did nothing to take their say away, by the way. All it did was shift the burden for them to have to exclude us from any bill going forward and explain why that was necessary. We thought that was very fair."

While King's position on the bill has been known since early fall, Republican Sen. Susan Collins' stance is unclear.

When asked whether Collins supported or opposed the proposal, a spokeswoman referred a reporter to a previous statement saying the senator would consider the merits of the legislation if it went through the “regular Senate process.”

Francis acknowledged that the Wabanaki Alliance was not sure of Collins' position and that it had only cited King in its criticism because it believed that he had worked to scuttle the bill.

The Wabanaki Alliance had been working to include the proposal in the omnibus spending bill for the past month and it ran digital ads specifically designed to build public pressure on King to support it. It also urged supporters to contact King and Collins, asking both to support the bill.

King had previously stated that he was worried about the legislation and that changes to the 1980 settlement act should be negotiated between the state and the tribes.

In a recent interview with Maine Public, Mills expressed a willingness to discuss changes to the agreement.

"There's a lot that needs to be done to repair the hurt that's involved in our relationships with the tribes going back a long ways," she said. "And I think we've done a lot in the last four years to do that. The Settlement Act is not sacrosanct. It has been amended in the past. And … my administration has worked on amendments to the Settlement Act."

Penobscot Chief Francis said the Wabanaki have made progress in recent years, but he says a lot more work needs to be done to overhaul an antiquated agreement that has left tribes in Maine lagging behind the progress made by their tribal counterparts in other states.

Updated: December 21, 2022 at 4:01 PM EST
This post has been updated with additional comments from Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation.
Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.