Back in February 2020, when the Act to Amend the Maine Implementing Act (MIA) was known as L.D. 2094, I testified that the tribes were declaring their independence— not with muskets and violence, but with reason, and the weight of federal Indian law solidly behind them. Now that this important bill has evolved into L.D. 1626 (embodying virtually all of the provisions of its predecessor), I am hopeful that it will pass with a strong majority this January.

This legislation merely allows the tribes in Maine to be treated like the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the country in 49 other states. Would Mainers accept it if 49 other states received federal funding for, let’s say, roads and bridges or health care, but Maine received none? Since the Settlement Act in Maine was signed in 1980 that’s essentially what has happened. Maine tribes have lost out compared to the other tribes across the country, and so have all Maine citizens.

So 42 years later, we understand the urgency of L.D. 1626 to reaffirm the tribes’ right to self-governance consistent with federal Indian law. It’s up to all of us to clarify and finally correct state overreach.

I recently visited the exhibit “Begin Again” at the Maine Historical Society. The exhibit sheds so much light on our past, just as it illuminates this present moment. “Settlers misunderstood the obligations that accompanied the privilege of sharing space,” one panel notes. Today, our governor continues to misunderstand the obligations that accompany the privilege of sharing space with the original and sovereign people of this land.

Addressing the pre-COVID version of the bill, Gov. Mills wrote of her concern “that if enacted, this bill will have the opposite of its intended effect and would lead to the degradation of the Tribal-State relationship by giving rise to disputes and disagreements over the meaning and effect of its provisions, thereby breeding confusion and extensive litigation at a time when we have finally begun to move past these.”  To my ear that is a clear echo of the white southerner’s resistance to dismantling Jim Crow laws. To say, “Oh, it will only create more trouble and upset our way of life, we’d better not go there” is just a rationalization for sustaining systemic injustice.

We will never move past resentment and litigation until we bring tribal-state relations to a place of respect and parity. The tribes want and deserve the same freedom as hundreds of other tribes to determine what is best for their people, their governance, economic development, and cultural preservation. Frankly, Maine can no longer afford to ignore and defy federal Indian law. Given the environmental challenges we face, we cannot hope to develop workable policies based on such contentious and slippery legal footing.

Gov. Mills, I implore you: Please join us in setting aside the settler mindset of domination that has been bred in our Euro-American bones. Relinquish the impulse to dictate an outcome by dancing around Maine’s obligation to recognize and abide by federal Indian law. We know that you are better, and Maine is better, than this legalistic feint and parry that only perpetuates unnecessary strife. Please sign L.D. 1626 into law so that we can achieve and celebrate this inevitable right relationship at last. This may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it is also the best thing, for our history.

This moment is about respect, about slowing down enough to fully acknowledge our political reality. For we are human family; our actions today must be governed by honest ownership of our painful history, and an unambiguous resolve to embrace the primacy of federal Indian law, so that the Tribes and the State can move forward on solid ground, side by side as independent partners.

The co-curator of “Begin Again,” Krystal Williams, asks such an important question: “Maine is a state with two conflicting identities — which Maine will win? The Maine that will be remembered by future generations is the Maine that we choose to nurture now.”

Diane Oltarzewski is a resident of Belfast.


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