A great injustice has been perpetrated upon the Wabanaki tribes in Maine by the 1980 federal Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act and the state’s Maine Implementing Act — the Settlement Acts. This injustice, according to the 2014 Report of the United Nations Rapporteur, has resulted in extreme poverty, loss of Wabanaki control over their lands and affairs, poor health care, and continued high unemployment.

In 1975, following several white resident land grabs in the early 1970s, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation submitted a land claim on two-thirds of the territory of the state of Maine, 17.7 million acres, which they claimed as their ancestral lands. A federal court found that treaties which transferred lands from the Wabanaki to the commonwealth of Massachusetts and after statehood to the state of Maine, had never been approved by Congress as required by law, and were therefore invalid. By establishing their claim, the Wabanaki sought to obtain justice and free themselves from onerous and restrictive economic and political controls exercised by the state of Maine over the tribes.

Supporters hold a rally to back passage of a bill to help the Passamaquoddy Tribe access clean water, in Augusta on Monday. LD 906 is one of several sovereignty bills before the Legislature. Randy Billings/Staff Writer

The federal Settlement Act provided a federal trust fund of $81 million for the Passamaquoddy tribe and the Penobscot nation to purchase up to 300,000 acres or 1.7% of their former lands. This sum provided the Wabanaki with only an average amount of $267 per acre to purchase the maximum acreage allowed.

In 1980, the total state valuation was $18.2 billion, of which two-thirds of the valuation, or $12.1 billion, was the value of the Wabanaki lands. Considering the total acreage owned by the Wabanaki, the $81 million settlement valued Wabanaki lands at 0.67% of their total value.

The state of Maine came out the winner by a long shot from the Settlement Act. The state provided no compensation to the Wabanaki for their former lands and got control of 17.7 million acres of former Wabanaki lands at no cost.

The State Land Claims Settlement Implementing Act of 1980 also included the creation of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission to oversee implementation of the State Act and as a means of resolving disputes that would arise from implementation of the Act. The commission membership is equally composed of state and tribal appointees.


In addition, the Tribal State Work Group was created by the Maine Legislature in 2007 to review implementation of the Maine Implementing Act. It was composed of 18 members: nine legislators and nine tribal appointees. The Tribal State Work Group report, released in January 2008, indicates that parties to the Federal Settlement Act and the State Implementing Act expected these acts to be amended from time to time to reflect changing conditions and circumstances.

The Tribal State Work Group unanimously agreed to findings and recommendations in their report that found “negotiators of the original agreements have expressed concern that their implementation has deviated from the understanding reached by the parties in 1980 and 1991.” The working group also found the Settlement Acts to be oppressive and unjust. Implementation of the Settlement Acts failed to take into account changes in the capabilities that the parties achieved over 27 years.

Gov. Janet Mills and Sen. Angus King are opposed to recognizing the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki, which would require amending the Settlement Acts of 1980. They claim that a deal is a deal and cannot be changed.

Treaties affecting the Indigenous peoples since the colonial period have been broken consistently over time. It is not uncommon, in general, for treaties to be renegotiated as changes in conditions and circumstances require.

H.R. 6707, sponsored by Rep. Jared Golden and co-sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree, would amend the federal Settlement Act to provide that the Wabanaki nations of Maine be included in all future federal legislation to benefit Indian tribes, rather than being excluded unless included by name. The Wabanaki have been excluded from access to millions of federal dollars that have benefited Indigenous people throughout the nation.

Please contact your senators to express support for this bill. It is the only way for the Wabanaki to overcome very unjust and cruel conditions placed upon them by political leaders who want to maintain state control over the affairs of the tribes.

Edward Potter of Gardiner is a member of the Racial Justice Council for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

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