During a lengthy public hearing before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee Friday, supporters said that Maine's federally recognized tribes have been debilitated by legal restrictions in the 1980 Settlement Act that made reparations for land taken from them. But concerns are being raised by sportsmen and by Maine's attorney general and governor.
"Maine tribes should enjoy the same rights, privileges, powers and immunities as other federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States."
That was the language used to establish a state task force to examine the 1980 Land Claims Settlement Act last June. Tribal leaders say it underscores the fundamental problem they face: a lack of parity with their native counterparts in other states and as sovereign nations.
"The Settlement in 1980 reduced us to mere municipalities," said Darrell Newell, vice-chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township.
Newell said he can remember when tribal members were wards of the state, lived in tar paper shacks and had no indoor plumbing or electricity. Federal recognition in the 1970's led to new housing, schools and health facilities. Self-determination was being restored, Newell said, until the Land Claims Settlement stifled relationships with the state and economic growth.
But Newell said working on the task force has restored his hopes.
"I believe that we can work together and again nurture a government-to-government relationship that has been near void for sometime now."
The task force has recommended giving the tribes exclusive jurisdiction over fishing and hunting, as well as the right to regulate natural resources on federally recognized tribal lands. Tribes would also be able to tax non-members on tribal lands, operate casinos with slot machines and table games, and have jurisdiction over certain crimes, including in cases of domestic violence committed by non-Indians on tribal lands.
Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said one of the biggest limitations of the Act is a provision that was added in Congress at the 11th hour without the tribes' knowledge.
"That said the tribes of Maine would not benefit from Congressional acts, specifically for the benefit of Indians, unless we were specifically mentioned in those bills."
In other words, every time legislation is passed that affects tribes in the United States, the Maine tribes are excluded unless they are specifically mentioned by name. And Francis said jurisdictional conflicts between the tribes and the state have resulted in costly litigation and stifled economic development.
"We have to do a tribal permit and a state permit,” said Francis. “There's tribal fees. There's state taxes, and so it just turns off investment."
But David Trahan of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine said he and his members object to some of the changes proposed in the bill, including the potential elimination of state management of fisheries and wildlife resources.
"The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife - are they doing something wrong? Are they mismanaging the resource? We don't understand what this is trying to achieve."
Trahan said he worries about turning over the task of wildlife management to the tribes and federal government. He said it will result in a confusing management scheme - one for state lands and one for tribal.
And Attorney General Aaron Frey urged the committee to use caution in implementing the task force recommendations.
"The Legislature's authority to amend the Maine Implementing Act - it's limited. Because any amendments to the MIA require both the tribes and the state to agree to that amendment."}
In addition, Frey said, Congress may also be required to endorse some of the changes. In a letter to members of the Judiciary Committee, Gov. Janet Mills said she is concerned about "the sweeping nature of the bill, the impacts on non-Tribal citizens and communities and the extent to which those impacts have been given due consideration and explained to the public." Instead, the governor said, she worries that the bill could give rise to disputes and disagreements and lead to the degradation of the Tribal-State relationship.
But Chief Clarissa Sabatiss of the Houlton Band of Maliseets said the task force recommendations should be the beginning of a new era, not only for the tribes but for the state.
"It has taken us 40 years to reach this moment, and I hope that you are able to stand in our shoes and understand the positive impacts that your decisions can set in motion."
Sabattis said she understands the fear of the unknown, but she reminded the committee that there are more than 560 other tribal nations across the country that live with the same rights that are being proposed in this bill.