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WATCH: Wabanaki leaders address Maine Legislature for first time in two decades

AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of the Wabanaki Nation addressed the full Maine Legislature Thursday during an event filled with symbolism and appeals for collaboration to change a decades-old agreement that the chiefs said is hurting their communities — and the state as a whole.

"Maine tribes are only tribes in the country that do not have the access to federal laws that get passed in Congress that benefit Indian Country,” said Chief William Nicholas of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township. “Let's make that change together, recognize the complete sovereignty of the Maine tribes and move forward in making a better state for all who live here."

Even before the five chiefs delivered their remarks, the traditions of their Wabanaki nations were center stage at the State House as the sounds of drumming echoed from the first to the fourth floor. The drummers' performance, just a few yards from the governor's office, was a celebration of Wabanaki tradition on an historic day in Augusta.

Wabanaki chiefs have only delivered a "State of the Tribes" address to both chambers of the Legislature on one other occasion 21 years ago. But Thursday was even more momentous because it was the first time all four tribes — the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Mi’kmaq Nation — have addressed a joint session of the Legislature.

Malseet Chief Clarissa Sabattis described her small tribe in far northern Maine as "strong and resilient" and poised for more economic growth. But like the four other chiefs that followed her, Sabattis said the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act is severely limiting the Maliseets' potential to self-govern and grow.

"As a result of this unchanging law, we have become outliers in Indian Country, economically under-performing when compared to tribes across the continental U.S.,” Sabattis said.

Clarissa Sabattis, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, addresses a joint session of the Maine Legislature on March 16, 2023.
Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
Clarissa Sabattis, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, addresses a joint session of the Maine Legislature on March 16, 2023.

Thursday's "State of the Tribes" address was proposed by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat who has been at the forefront of legislative efforts to overhaul that 1980 agreement. Talbot Ross listened as chiefs recalled how their ancestors fought alongside continental troops during the American Revolution.

Chief Rena Newell from the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point recited a speech that her great-grandfather delivered to the Maine Legislature in Dec. 1887 in which he reminded the lawmakers of promises made to his community following the revolution. An estimated 600 Passamaquoddy and Penobscot men joined the fight against the British during the war.

"And I thought it was important to go to the past,” said Newell, who has also served as the Passamaquoddy representative to the Legislature. “We can speak of the present, we can speak of the future. But it's important to reflect upon the past in order to move toward the future."

That was a recurring theme as tribal leaders emphasized past collaboration while asking lawmakers to work with them, once again, on the issue of sovereignty.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said the tribes and state have made enormous progress in addressing what seemed an "unfixable" rift just eight years ago when the Penobscots withdrew their representative from the Legislature. And he personally thanked lawmakers but, in particular, the people of Maine who “have said loud and clear that you want a better relationship to exist between the state and the Wabanaki Nations — your friendship has meant everything.”

But a bill to overhaul that 1980 agreement faltered in the Legislature last year in the face of a veto threat by Gov. Janet Mills. And Francis said it is time for Maine to follow the rest of the nation in recognizing tribes' right to self-government, a process that began in earnest under former President Richard Nixon.

"Yet in Maine, we are stuck in 1980s policy,” Francis said. “And the tribes have had to commit significant resources to trying to advocate on a case-by-case basis to be included in federal laws that are passed and are supposed to apply to us."

A recent report from Harvard University found that incomes of tribal members across the country have grown by more than 60% in recent decades but by only 9% in Maine. The report blames the economic disparity on the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act because it often prevents tribes in Maine from benefiting from federal law changes that apply to the 570 other federally recognized tribes.

One high-profile example of the difference is that tribes in Maine have been unable to take advantage of federal laws allowing them to opening casinos or other gaming facilities. But the 1980 agreement affects more than 100 other laws dealing with health services, education, criminal justice and environmental regulation on tribal territory.

Chief Edward Peter-Paul of the Mi'kmaq Nation in Aroostook County said his nation is in “survival mode” because it is entirely dependent on federal grants. Peter-Paul said the Mi'kmaqs aren't looking for handouts but merely to be on the same footing as other tribes.

"We want an opportunity to self-determine our prosperity, our future,” Peter-Paul said. “The onus of success and failure should be on us and not on the state determine what success or failure is for our nation."

Gov. Mills opposed the sweeping overhaul of the 1980 agreement because she said it would lead to more confusion and legal wrangling between the tribes and the state. Instead, Mills has worked with tribal leaders to address specific issues, such as water quality in sustenance fishing waterways. And last year, she negotiated a deal that gives the tribes exclusive access to offering online sports gambling in Maine.

But Nicholas with the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township said the 1980 settlement was intended to resolve the tribes’ land claims against the state, not to hinder economic development. Closing out his speech and the "State of the Tribes" address, Nicholas spoke in Passamaquoddy and then translated for the lawmakers, striking the same collaborative tone as other chiefs.

"We must unite together. We must unite together,” he said.

The five tribal chiefs frequently had to leave space for applause, and the reception shows the strides that tribal advocates have made in getting legislators on both sides of the aisle to join their cause.

"I think they said it best, you know, that we're in this together, that we're united, and we are stronger when we work together. And so I think hearing directly from them, helps to build that relationship, because that's what it should be," said Sen. Donna Bailey, a Democrat from Saco.

Bailey said the address was long overdue and hopes the Legislature will hear from the tribes more in the future.

House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham said his caucus is wary of changing some of the environmental and gaming provisions of the 1980 settlement. But he said fellow Republicans share many of the concerns raised by the chiefs about why the law needs to be changed, such as the need to govern themselves to prosper.

"I'm getting I'm getting a really good feeling that if we get a you know, if we get a good bill out of this, that perhaps the products, the things that were wrong about the 1980s settlement, I don't really see why there be any opposition to it," he said.

The legislative chamber was nearly full Thursday. In attendance was U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine's 2nd District, two Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices and Maine's constitutional officers. Notably absent was Gov. Janet Mills, who has said she was unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts.

The governor had offered to meet with the chiefs after the address. But Francis said the timing of the invite did not work for tribal leadership.

"I can't question her reasoning for not being here. That's something she'll have to answer. But we're really happy with the people that were here, from the secretary of state to the attorney general, Supreme Court judges. You know, most of all the constitutional officers were here," he said.

For Donna Loring, Mills' former tribal adviser, the absence was a sign of disrespect.

"You know, native voices, the chiefs' voices from all of the communities are talking about their issues, and willing to work, and there's one branch of government that has closed their ears and doesn't hear those voices and was not here today," she said.

Mills' spokesperson Ben Goodman said the governor congratulated the tribes on their address, calling it a historic event, and in a statement said that her office looks forward to meeting with the chiefs as soon as possible.

Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.