A new dawn in tribal-state relations will have to wait, deeply disappointing Native people and their supporters around the state.

A bill that would have clarified the relationship between the state and its sovereign tribes that was presented to the Legislature in 2020 will likely have to wait another year before it can get a vote in the House and Senate, according to a social media post by Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana.

Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana, left, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Passamaquoddy Chief William J. Nicholas Sr. and Houlton Band of Maliseets Chief Clarissa Sabattis gather in April 2019 at a signing ceremony for the bill changing the name of the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The bill, L.D. 1626, was tabled Tuesday, meaning the Legislature would probably not formally take it up until 2022. But lawmakers and the Mills administration should not wait until then to meet with the tribes and other affected parties to come to an agreement that can be passed into law.

You could call the delay a COVID casualty: a sweeping bill that would have recognized that rights enjoyed by other federally recognized tribes across the country also belong to the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. The bill died last year when the Legislature adjourned in the early days of the pandemic, and Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on terms to reconvene.

A new bill was drafted and put before lawmakers this year, but in another legislative session complicated by remote work and social distancing, it was deemed too complicated a piece of legislation to be fairly considered in the last weeks of the session.

Nothing is simple about the details of the legislation – which, among other things, would allow the tribes to regulate hunting, fishing and business activities on Indian land. But the concept behind it is simple and should be one that all sides can agree on.

Maine’s tribes should not be permanently punished for their willingness to work with the state more than 40 years ago, when Maine’s historical violation of treaties had put it in a vulnerable legal position. The decision to settle their claims amicably should not prevent Maine’s Native people from benefiting from advances in Native American law, whether they come through acts of Congress or decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Other Native tribes are governed by federal law, and they relate to state governments as sovereign entities. Here, tribes are treated more like municipalities within the state. They cannot tax or regulate development on their own lands. Their courts have limited jurisdiction.

The clearest example of how the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Agreement and its implementing legislation has disadvantaged Native people in Maine is the way that tribes from Connecticut to California have been able to open gambling facilities, while tribes here have not.  The Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseets could not get permission from the state, even while two casinos owned by non-Indian investors were approved. Gambling would not be permitted by L.D. 1626 (it is addressed in a separate bill), but the history of the last 40 years may have been very different if tribes in Maine had the same rights as other American tribes.

These are not new issues, but the tribes have reason to be optimistic that they will finally get some relief. The proposed changes in L.D. 1626 were the consensus recommendations of a bipartisan task force created by the Legislature that issued its findings in February 2020. The bill has a broad range of supporters, including House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and Senate President Troy Jackson.

Through her legal counsel, Gov. Mills has said she has “serious concerns” about the bill in its current form. Tabling the proposal will give the administration and the tribes time to work through their differences.

The state should enter these negotiations with a firm commitment to starting a new era in Maine’s relations with the tribes. Native people have waited too long already.


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