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Harvard researcher details Wabanaki tribes' economic disadvantages in presentation to lawmakers

Joseph Kalt
Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center
Joseph Kalt

A Harvard researcher told state lawmakers on Thursday that Wabanaki communities trail far behind other tribes economically because of the 1980 agreement limiting tribal self-government.

Joseph Kalt, who is co-director of Harvard University's Project on American Indian Economic Development, was the co-author of a report that examined the economic impact of that decades-old agreement. That report, which was commissioned by the Wabanaki Alliance, found that most tribes nationwide have experienced extraordinary growth in recent decades as they gained greater ability to self-govern. And Kalt said that contrary to popular opinion, that dramatic economic growth happened in tribal communities nationwide regardless of whether they opened gambling venues on their land.

Instead, Kalt attributed the growth to tribes’ steady transition to self-government in recent decades.

But Kalt told House members during an informational session that the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act empowers the state to effectively block the tribes in Maine from benefiting from new federal laws since 1980 that have benefited other federally recognized tribes. The result, Kalt said, is the four Wabanaki Nation tribes — the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Mi’kmaq Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians — have far higher poverty and unemployment rates than other tribes and Maine's population in general.

"In the era of self-government that I have talked about that started with the self-government amendments under President Reagan, the Maine tribes have been blocked from participating in a great deal of that,” Kalt said. “What this does is affects the ability of the Wabanaki Nations to be as aggressive as tribes elsewhere in the nation in trying to generate some advantages for themselves, whether that being quicker with the development of a child welfare program or quicker with the development of a health clinic.”

And that has resulted in uncertainty and risk that has discouraged both financial investment and the willingness of younger tribal members to build businesses or careers in their communities.

Kalt spoke to about 40 Democratic and Republican House members one week before leaders of the four tribes in Maine are slated to address a joint session of the Maine Legislature.

Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation ambassador and the president of the Wabanaki Alliance coalition, said in a statement that “Maine is the outlier” because of the settlement agreement. Efforts to overhaul that agreement faltered in the Legislature last year in the face of opposition from Gov. Janet Mills, who has said she is open to piecemeal revisions to the 1980 law.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Dana said. “A better story than the one we’ve seen over the past 40 years is possible.”

Kalt was invited to discuss the recent report by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and House Minority Leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor.

"It is of the utmost importance to build off of the work of recent legislative leadership to improve the relationship with tribal government,” Talbot Ross said in a statement. “Professor Kalt's presentation was an opportunity to provide critical context for the Legislature to consider regarding the ongoing economic repercussions for the Wabanaki Nations as a result of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. I am both thankful to Professor Kalt and to my colleagues from both parties for being engaged in the ongoing work to improve the well-being of not only tribal citizens, but all of Maine."

“It is important that our members have information like this as we consider proposals that affect the Wabanaki Nations and other tribes,” Faulkingham said in a statement. “Our task as legislators is to make Maine a place where everyone can succeed. I thank those who made today’s presentation possible.”