For the first time in state history, leaders of all the Wabanaki Nations addressed both chambers of the Maine State Legislature on Thursday. They called for recognition in law and policy of Wabanaki inherent sovereignty.
Underscoring a rift between the tribes and Gov. Janet Mills on the issue of tribal self-determination, the Democratic governor was not in attendance. In contrast, Congressman Jared Golden, a Democrat from Lewiston who sponsored federal legislation to give the tribes more rights, listened to the address from the floor of the Maine House.
“The blood sweat and tears of our ancestors run through this land and it will continue to do so for generations to come,” Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said as part of a State of the Tribes address. “We are not going anywhere. All we want is for the state government to break decisively from the past and join the era of self-determination for tribal nations that has proven so successful throughout the rest of the country.”
“We are capable of self-governance and should be treated as partners rather than threats to the future of the state,” Francis added. “We want a relationship with the state government that is based on mutual trust, fidelity and respect.”
The tribal leaders’ remarks marked only the second time such an address was made to a full assembly of Maine lawmakers, the first being 2002. Thursday’s address was the first attended by leaders of all of the Wabanaki Nations in Maine — the Penobscot, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy tribes at Sipayik and Indian Township.
Hundreds of supporters were in attendance at the Maine State House, many watching the address on televisions in spill-over rooms.
“We’re asking to be put on the same footing as the 570 federally recognized tribes across the country,” Mi’kmaq Chief Edward Peter Paul said. “Those tribes are subjected to federal Indian laws passed by Congress. We’re asking to be treated fairly.”
A multi-year legislative effort to overhaul the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which was opposed by Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey, passed both chambers before it died in the legislature’s budget-making committee last year. That legislation, pushed for by the tribes and their allies, would have altered tribal-state relations on matters from taxation to gambling to wildlife management by overhauling the Settlement Act, which has excluded the tribes from rights and protections created through federal law since its passage over 40 years ago.
Mills’ office told reporters before the address that she would not attend due to a scheduling conflict, though her office did not specify what that conflict was.
Mills has opposed the push for full recognition of Wabanaki sovereignty since taking office in 2019. As Maine’s former attorney general, Mills also opposed the tribes in court during some of the legal battles over tribal rights that led to the current stalemate.
Mills has brokered some compromises with the tribes in recent years, including signing her own bill, which allows tribes to run online sports betting markets, and another to address the water crisis at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation. But she has pushed back against adopting all 22 recommendations made by the Maine Indian Land Claims Task Force.
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), the sponsor of the previous tribal sovereignty bill, has submitted new legislation this session, LR 1184, which would again attempt to implement the recommendations of the task force, though details have yet to be released. The bill is a top priority for the tribes this session.
“Our success is your success,” said Clarissa Sabattis, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. “As a result of this unchanging law, we have become outliers in Indian Country, economically underperforming when compared to tribes across the continental U.S.”
Sabattis was referring to a report by the Harvard Kennedy School released late last year that found that while economic growth in Indian Country has boomed since the start of genuine tribal self-government in the late 1980s, Wabanaki Nations have been left out of these benefits as a result of the Settlement Act.
“With that,” she added, “I’d like to say I look forward to our continued partnership and forging a new path forward that is not only better for our tribe, but is also better for this great state that we all call home.”
At the federal level, Golden sponsored a bill that would have allowed the Wabanaki access to all future federal legislation passed on behalf of tribes. That federal legislation, which Mills lobbied against, died in December when it was not included in a congressional budget deal due to opposition from Sen. Angus King, an independent, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins.
Golden received applause from state lawmakers when thanked by tribal leaders for sponsoring the legislation.
Rena Newell, chief of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Sipayik and the tribe’s former representative in the Maine House, expressed optimism about the tribes’ relationship with lawmakers.
“Over these past four years, the Wabanaki Nations and the legislature have seen growing momentum with respect to collaborative policymaking and relationship building,” she said. “Today is a sign that our momentum will only increase and, for this reason, I am excited for what the future holds for Wabanaki-state relations.”
Tribal leaders emphasized on Thursday that lawmakers have a chance to advance tribal sovereignty this year. To overcome a likely Mills’ veto, however, two-thirds of the legislature would have to favor the legislation, which means gaining Republican support will be a major part of the tribes’ strategy this session.
House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Republican representing Winter Harbor, has expressed some support for tribal priorities. In January, Faulkingham traveled with Talbot Ross and House Majority Leader Maureen Terry (D-Gorham) to Indian Island in the Penobscot Nation to meet with tribal leaders.
Democratic leaders pledged to rectify the failures of past legislatures after the address.
“Symbolic gestures do not right decades, if not centuries, of wrong. They do not erase the ugly and deeply painful history regarding the state’s treatment of the Wabanaki Tribes, nor do they make up for the legacy of empty promises and their consequences,” Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) said in a statement.
Talbot Ross echoed Jackson: “By no means does the State of the Tribes address forgive a shameful history of pain and tragedy, discrimination and injustice,” she said in a statement. “However, it can signify an enduring commitment to perform the critical work of reflection, understanding, and collaboration in order to continue to heal past wrongs and work towards a more just and equitable future.”
William Nicholas, chief of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Indian Township, closed his remarks on Thursday calling on lawmakers to come together to form a veto-proof majority.
“Almost every treaty made has been broken, modified or interpreted to benefit the state. We must come together to make some positive, inclusive change,” he said. “Limited sovereignty is not sovereignty. The opportunity to address the unfair treatment that Maine tribes have received since 1980 can be worked on and end with this legislative body of leaders.”