At Wabanaki rally for supporters, tribal leaders say ‘time is on our side’
Leaders of the Wabanaki Nations gathered with supporters in Freeport on Thursday night for a “celebration,” one week after a high-profile bill was blocked by Gov. Janet Mills. But as tribal and legislative leaders made clear repeatedly, they viewed the recent vote as a temporary setback, not a defeat.
"This is about a lot more than wins and losses in the Legislature,” said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis, speaking to about 250 people gathered outside on a rare, rain-free summer evening at Wolfe's Neck Center in Freeport. "We're making a great deal of progress. We're making, more importantly, so many friendships."
In the crowd were leaders of Maine's environmental and social justice communities as well as legislators who supported the effort to overturn a key portion of the 1980 legal agreement between the Wabanaki tribes and the state. Francis acknowledged that he and other tribal leaders felt “deflated” when they failed to muster the two-thirds support needed to override a veto Mills. Even so, the event was billed as a celebration.
"You know, we've been here for a few minutes – around 12,000 years – and we're not going anywhere any time soon,” Francis said. “Time is on our side and times are changing. And it's all of you that are helping to make that happen. So I just wanted to say thank you to all of you for that."
After years of effort, the tribes had won strong, bipartisan support for a bill to put them on parity with other tribal nations. The bill, LD 2004, aimed to ensure that any laws passed by Congress to benefit other federally recognized tribes would automatically apply to the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Mi'kmaq nation. Under the terms of the 1980 agreement, state law can preempt federal law on tribal lands in Maine when the two conflict.
The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act ended a years-long legal battle in which the tribes had laid claim to roughly two-thirds of the land in Maine, alleging the governments of Massachusetts and Maine had violated federal law and treaties by selling or transferring the lands. In return for settling the lawsuit, the tribes received $81.5 million to purchase 300,000 acres across the state as well as the ability to add additional tribal lands in the future. But because the tribal lands were so extensive, the state wanted state and not federal laws and regulations to apply.
Tribal leaders say that preemption has held back their communities economically and created confusion. The Mills administration counters that it’s only a handful of laws in question – such as the Stafford Act applying to federal disaster or emergency assistance, gambling laws and some health care laws – and that they are willing to work with the tribes and Maine’s congressional delegation to address potential conflicts.
In her veto message, Mills said the vague language would only create more confusion and legal conflicts about whether state, tribal or federal regulations applied on lands throughout Maine. And in the end, the governor managed to flip a dozen Republican House members and one Democrat to preserve her veto.
"But our efforts were not a failure, they were a building block,” said House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor. Tribal leaders awarded Faulkingham and four other lawmakers with “champion” awards for their support of the bill. They also thanked Faulkingham for helping to open Republican doors, allowing them to build on already-strong support among Democrats.
“I am completely committed to this issue,” Faulkingham said. “We made a really big step. It wasn't far enough in the end but it wasn't a failure. We will build on it. I promise, we will build on it. And there is more to come."
The tribes also singled out Republicans Rep. John Andrews of Paris and Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford as well as the two top Democrats in the Legislature, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland and Senate President Troy Jackson. For his part, Jackson pledged to continue working on tribal rights issues until they are fixed, whether he is in the State House or not, calling it a moral issue that deeply resonates with him.
"But we all know that this is wrong,” Jackson said. “And it has to be resolved. And it will be. Unfortunately one day in the future, but it will be resolved."
Mills was attending a National Governors Association conference out of state this week. But in a statement, her office says the governor does not want to see the Wabanaki Nations unfairly excluded from benefits generally available to other federally recognized tribes. A Mills spokesman also said the governor is ready to negotiate with the Wabanaki Nations and others to address federal laws that do not apply to tribes in Maine.
That's consistent with what Mills told Maine Public last month as she pointed to her administration's work with tribes on water quality, criminal justice and taxation issues.
"When we sit down and identify the problem, we make progress,” Mills said. “We've made tremendous progress in the last 4 1/2 years and I am not giving up on that kind of progress. I want there to be open communication and collaboration. Unfortunately this bill was not the product of that. Quite the opposite."
Back in Freeport, Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant suggested the alliance plans to revive the push for a broader sovereignty bill despite the outcome on LD 2004.
"It's all a bright spot, even the failures,” Bryant said.
Bryant's ambassador position was created after the Penobscots withdrew their representative to Legislature in 2015 to protest deteriorating relations with the state. But Bryant says now she is greeted with smiles, respect and even hugs when she enters the State House today, which she sees as a clear sign of progress. And as she closed out Thursday's gathering, her message suggested there are plans to continue focusing on issues important to tribal communities in the next legislative session.
"But let's come back in January and pass some really awesome tribal sovereignty legislation,” Bryant said to loud cheers and applause.
And with that, the Passamaquoddy group Fire Wolf Singers ended Thursday's event with a prayer song that Passamaquody Rep. Aaron Dana said was intended to provide "good energy" to supporters who had traveled from all corners of Maine for the Wabanaki event.