Maine groups show solidarity with tribes’ push for sovereignty

A coalition made up of conservationists, sportsmen, young people, women, faith groups and labor unions are standing in support of Wabanaki tribes in their effort to obtain the same rights that other tribes in the U.S. maintain over natural resources, gaming and taxation.

“The Environmental Priorities Coalition, which consists of 32 organizations representing over 120,000 Maine people, chose [an omnibus tribal sovereignty bill] as one of our top nine priorities for this legislative session,” said Abigail Bradford of Maine Conservation Voters at a press conference on Wednesday at the Civic Center in Augusta where the state legislature has convened during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is because we believe that restoring the Wabanaki tribes’ inherent rights to manage their lands, waters and natural resources will help regenerate those ecosystems and make them more resilient to climate change.” 

Supporters attending a press conference showing support for Wabanaki tribes in their effort to obtain the same rights that other tribes in the U.S. | Beacon

Maulian Dana, ambassador of the Penobscot Nation, explained how a coalition of different advocacy groups now backing the full recognition of sovereignty has grown and coalesced around the push for tribal rights.

“Over 30 organizations have come together. It started as a coalition around environmental priorities, recognizing that tribes have been the stewards of these lands and waters for a very long time,” she said. “It’s really grown into support for all aspects of tribal sovereignty. The coalition is connecting it to the larger community of Maine: Holding up tribes holds up everybody.”

Supporters are joining Wabanaki groups in a renewed legislative effort to reform the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, a jurisdictional arrangement between tribes and the state of Maine that supporters say needs to change. 

Supporters include U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who recently described the agreements made in 1980 as “problematic and increasingly unsustainable.”

As a result of the Settlement Act, tribes in Maine are subjects to nearly all state laws. This is not the case in other Indigenous nations across the country where since the 1960s the federal government has increasingly recognized tribal sovereignty. The Settlement Act exempted Maine tribes from any laws passed by Congress for the benefit of tribes after 1980. 

State Rep. Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) said state officials knew they had struck an advantageous deal at the time. During the press conference, he read from a memo written by former Maine Attorney General Richard Cohen to legislators at the time.

Rep. Jeff Evangelos, sponsor of a bill enacting all of the recommendations of the Maine Indian Land Claims Task Force, speaks at a press conference at the Civic Center. | Beacon

“You tell me whether this was in good faith,” he said, quoting Cohen. “‘The framework of laws and the Settlement Act is by far the most favorable state Indian jurisdictional relationship that exists anywhere in the United States. As a general rule, states have little authority to enforce state laws on Indian lands … The proposal before you not only avoids such a situation, but recovers for the state much of the jurisdiction over the existing reservations that it had lost.’”

Tribal-state relations had gotten so bad over the past 40 years that the Penobscot Nation withdrew their representatives from the legislature in 2015.

Evangelos and House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) have both introduced different bills to implement changes to the Settlement Act recommended by the Maine Indian Land Claims Task Force in their report to the legislature in 2020.

The recommendations include reforming the law to create “an enhanced process for tribal-state collaboration and consultation as well as a process for alternative dispute resolution,” as well as strengthening tribal communities’ criminal jurisdiction, and recognizing the rights of tribes to regulate hunting and fishing on their lands.

Evangelos’ bill contains provisions empowering tribes to engage in gaming initiatives. Talbot Ross’ bill omits those gaming provisions, which has been the most contentious of the recommendations during previous negotiations.

A similar bill implementing all recommendations of the task force was passed by the Judiciary Committee in August 2020. But because the full legislature was not in session, the bill wasn’t taken up and died when the new legislative session began. 

Tribal communities and their supporters are hopeful that this session the legislation will be signed into law. 

“I think when tribes come to the table, it is seen as we are trying to fight and we are asking for special rights,” Dana said at the press conference. “In reality we are coming to the table because we have a vision of life beyond fighting. We have a vision for healing, a vision for unity, a vision for peace.” 

She added, “The tribes are not municipalities. We are not wards of the state. We are federally recognized tribal nations that should enjoy all the rights and privileges of other tribes in this country.”

Top photo: Supporters of tribal sovereignty attend a press conference in Augusta on Wednesday. | Beacon

About Dan Neumann

Avatar photoDan studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North's interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago's West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)

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