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Wabanaki leaders to deliver 'State of the Tribes' address for first time in two decades

Protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House, Monday, April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.
David Sharp
AP file
Protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House, Monday, April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.

Next Thursday, Wabanaki leaders will deliver a formal address to both chambers of the Legislature in what many regard as another significant — if symbolic — event in efforts to improve relations between the state and tribal governments.

This will be the first “State of the Tribes” address in roughly two decades and is expected to include remarks from leaders of the four Wabanaki tribes: the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Mi’kmaq Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. Maine Public will carry the event live at 10:45 a.m. March 16 on radio, television and online.

The address comes after several years of what tribal leaders say has been measurable progress on issues important to their communities. But those leaders could also use the address to continue their push for greater self-government and state recognition of tribal sovereignty.

They came close to a major victory on sovereignty last year when a bill to overhaul the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act received majority support in both the House and Senate only to fall victim to a veto threat from Gov. Janet Mills.

Mills is quick to point out that her administration has worked closely with tribal leaders on a host of significant changes. Those include enacting the nation’s strictest environmental standards on waterways used for sustenance fishing, granting tribes exclusive access to offer online sports betting in Maine, banning Indian mascots in Maine schools and exempting tribal members from some state taxes.

But tensions remain around the broader overhaul of the 1980 agreement, which a recent study by Harvard University researchers said has resulted in the Wabanaki tribes experiencing significantly less economic growth and opportunities than the vast majority of tribes nationwide.

And this past week, Mills once again staked out a position opposite of the tribes and other Democratic leaders, saying a proposal “would not solve any real world problem, but would instead create new confusion.”

The question is whether to resume printing part of the state constitution that required Maine to honor treaties with tribes that were in place when Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820. The language, known as Article X Section 5, remains in full effect. But it’s been omitted from reprints of the Maine Constitution since 1875 for reasons that remain unclear but are subject to intense speculation and debate.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross has proposed a constitutional amendment that would restore the omitted sections to printed copies of the constitution. Tribal leaders called her bill, L.D. 78, a “powerful truth-seeking measure.”

But in a letter to a legislative committee, Mills’ chief legal counsel, Gerald Reid, wrote that the bill is based on a “false premise.”

“First, it appears to be a misguided attempt to right a historic wrong that never occurred — there is no factual basis for the proposition that the Articles of Separation were removed from printed copies of the Constitution as part of an effort to evade treaty obligations,” Reid continued. “Supporting this legislation would perpetuate that baseless theory.”

Reid goes on to write that the current “rights and responsibilities of the state and the Wabanaki Nations” is defined by that 1980 legal agreement between the tribes, the state and Congress, not by historic treaties. Reprinting references to the treaty obligations, Reid added, “would be confusing and potentially destabilizing.”

Mills was Maine’s attorney general for years before being elected governor in 2018. But her position on L.D. 78 puts her at odds with the current attorney general, Aaron Frey, a fellow Democrat who has more often than not sided with his predecessor on tribal sovereignty issues.

“While there are different views of why Article X Section 5 was excluded from the printed versions of the Maine Constitution, there does not appear to be any legal or policy reasons for that language to remain outside of the printed version,” Frey told members of the Judiciary Committee.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat whose office is responsible for official reprints of the Maine Constitution, also supports Talbot Ross’s bill to restore the omitted sections.

Collins and COVID origins

U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided over the origins of a COVID-19 pandemic that killed millions of Americans and people worldwide. However, Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, are signaling that they believe the virus was leaked from a Chinese lab.

The lab leak theory was a key line of inquiry this week when the Senate Intelligence Committee questioned intelligence officials during its annual worldwidethreat assessment hearing. During the hearing, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that China’s lack of cooperation was hindering the investigation into COVID’s origins, which has resulted in differing theories among U.S. intelligence agencies.

The U.S. Energy Department had originally been undecided on how the virus spread to humans, but it recently reported that it had come to believe that it was leaked from a Chinese lab in Wuhan, although the agency described that belief as a low-confidence assessment. The FBI has concluded the same with “moderate confidence,” but based on different factors. Four other agencies still believe that the virus spread naturally from a market.

"So you can see how challenging this has been across the community," Haines said.

But Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed dissatisfaction with the dueling assessments.

“We know, as your statement says, that Beijing continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blames other countries,” she told Haines. “Those are not the actions of an innocent party. We know that the Department of Energy has changed its assessment to say that the most likely cause is a laboratory incident. I just don't understand why you continue to maintain on behalf of the intelligence community that these (natural transmission and a lab leak) are two equally plausible explanations. They simply are not.”

NPR recently reported that while COVID’s origin has divided intelligence agencies, the split among virologists is less stark with many supporting the theory that the virus jumped from an animal to humans at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Dec. 2019. Meanwhile, some worry that a definitive conclusion may not be possible without more cooperation from Chinese officials.

'Ukraine fatigue'

Haines, Director of National Intelligence, also provided the Senate Intelligence Committee with an assessment of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that provides useful context for a pair of votes in the Maine Legislature this week.

Haines told the committee that the war has effectively become an attritional slog and that Russia is likely positioning itself to defend its territorial gains rather than launch a major offensive this year.

"We do not see the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains," she said. "Putin likely calculates that time works in his favor."

Intelligence analysts believe that Putin’s calculation is as much of a political consideration as it is about military capacity. They believe Putin is hoping U.S. support for arming Ukraine will further diminish the longer the war drags on.

Polls indicate that segments of the American public are growing weary of U.S. security assistance, a sentiment that has gripped a faction of the Republican party, locally and nationally.

The intra-GOP split was on display ina pair of votes this week in the Maine Legislature over a resolution expressing support for Ukraine. The resolution passed in the House, 87-54, and the Senate, 27-4, but the floor debates were notable for some Republican lawmakers’ criticism of Ukraine, U.S. financial support for it, and in some cases, rhetoric suggesting that the country and the West had forced Russia to invade its neighbor -- a military campaign that’srazed several cities, displaced millions of Ukranians and spawned reports that Russia is sending Ukrainian children from occupied areas to“re-education” centers.

While it’s difficult to know whether criticism of U.S. involvement is gaining traction outside of the conservative movement, it’s clear that the Republicans who hold those beliefs are becoming increasingly vocal about them.

It was reflected in the Maine House and Senate debates and votes for the Ukraine resolution. A year ago just two House members opposed a similar resolution. This year most of the House Republican caucus opposed it.

Republicans unveil 'election integrity' priorities

Republicans in the Maine Senate made their case for voter ID and tighter controls around absentee ballots this week.

Democrats have consistently killed every attempt in recent years to require voters to show a photo ID at the ballot box, citing concerns about disenfranchising older voters and others without a driver’s license.

But Maine is now one of roughly a dozen states that doesn’t have some form of voter ID requirement. And a recent poll of Maine residents conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that 63% of respondents supported requiring voters to show a photo ID at the ballot box. Not surprisingly, support varied dramatically depending on political affiliation, with 98% of Republicans and 71% of independents supporting voter ID but only 34% of Democrats.

Seeking to counter the disenfranchise arguments, Sen. Matt Pouliot of Augusta and other Republicans have proposed that the Secretary of State’s Office make a free photo ID available to any Maine citizen who needs one.

Senate Republicans also talked about increasing security around absentee ballots or drop boxes to prevent “ballot stuffing” and other nefarious attempts to influence elections, although there have been no documented cases of such fraud in Maine in recent years. A bill from Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, would prohibit ballot drop boxes altogether.

Election integrity has been a buzzword in GOP circles for several election cycles, fueled by former President Trump’s false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Republican senators referred repeatedly to declining voter confidence in election integrity and recounted how they often heard on the campaign trail from potential voters (particularly Republicans) who didn’t plan to participate because of those concerns.

When asked about a potential link between those Republican perceptions and Trump’s false claims, however, GOP state Sen. Jeff Timberlake of Turner replied: “I don’t believe that. I think it is our job as legislators in the state of Maine to make sure that people in the state of Maine feel that what we’re doing is protecting everybody and making it as honest and sincere as possible.”

There have only been a small handful of voter fraud cases in Maine in recent years despite the fact that the state consistently has among the highest voter participation rates in the nation and high use of absentee ballots.

Support grows for foreign electioneering ban

Earlier this week Maine Public reported that supporters of a ballot initiative banning entities owned by foreign governments from electioneering in referendum campaigns are making a push to enact the measure in the legislature.

That hasn’t happened in nearly 16 years, but the group Protect Maine Elections, which is leading the ballot campaign, is gathering support among lawmakers to get it done.

In addition to House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, the group announced Thursday that it had additional commitments from lawmakers. Among them are House minority leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, assistant minority leader Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, and Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman, of Winthrop. Hickman is the co-chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which will get the first crack at evaluating the ballot initiative once it becomes a bill.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.