Seemingly historic, Wabanaki leaders urge Congress to allow Maine tribes to benefit from future federal laws
Chiefs of Maine’s four Wabanaki Indian tribes appeared jointly before members of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years on Thursday, testifying in support of a bill they said was necessary to restore their sovereignty tribal.
At issue is a 1980 settlement with the state that excludes Maine tribes from most federal laws that benefit other tribes. Chief William Nicholas of the Passamaquoddy Tribe says the fundamental purpose of the 1980 agreement between the state of Maine and the tribes was to settle Wabanaki Nation claims to their historic lands. But for Nicholas and other tribal leaders, the state has used the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act to deny their communities access to federal benefits and sovereign rights enjoyed by more than 500 other tribes across the country.
“At the end of the day, land and money weren’t the main consequences of the Colonial Act. The real cost was our sovereignty,” Nicholas told members of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for the indigenous peoples of the United States.
Nicholas and leaders of the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Micmac Nation testified in support of a bill sponsored by Maine Rep. Jared Golden, D-District 2, which seeks to ensure that all future federal laws enacted benefit Indian tribes would also apply to tribes in Maine. Since 1980, Congress has passed about 150 laws dealing with everything from health services and economic development to gambling and criminal justice in Indian Country. But Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Maliseet Band says Maine’s Establishment Act, or MICSA, has preempted those laws in Maine with devastating effects.
“While our tribe has grown over the past four decades, we continue to struggle in large part because of this restrictive Settlement Law that we continue to live under,” Sabattis said. “When the United States entered MICSA, it unfortunately left our four tribes in an impossible situation and under the authority of a state that does not have the same responsibility of trust as the United States government” .
As an example, tribal leaders say they have been unable to directly access federal funds for health programs, disaster relief or even the COVID-19 response. Maine tribes have fought unsuccessfully for more than two decades to gain state or voter approval to open casinos or other gambling venues. And they say a lack of tribal courts or Child welfare programs led to a greater number of tribal children being placed with non-indigenous families.
Chief Edward PeterPaul of the Micmac Nation of Aroostook County pointed out that his tribe was not included in the 1980 agreement.
“Although we were not a party to or participated in the negotiations of the law, the US court system later discovered that we had lost all of our jurisdiction to the State of Maine because of it,” PeterPaul said. . “As a result, for the past 30 years, we are the only federally recognized tribe in the State of Maine that continues to be fully subject to state law. For 30 years, we have been unable to negotiate a new jurisdictional agreement that gives us the legal authority to ensure the health, welfare and safety of our people.
Tribal leaders said Golden’s bill would remedy some of those wrongs in the future.
“This is an intentionally narrow approach,” Golden told his congressional colleagues. “He is not going back and applying this change to laws that are already on the books. This bill will reduce unnecessary red tape and bureaucratic efforts to prevent the Wabanaki tribes from benefiting from future laws passed for their benefit.
Golden’s comments were in anticipation of concerns raised by at least one Republican member of the subcommittee as well as a representative from one of Maine’s biggest industries.
Patrick Strauch, who heads the Maine Forest Products Council, said tribal lands are scattered in areas of the state where its members operate. While Strauch said the industry works well with tribes, he worries that companies have to negotiate different environmental regulations on tribal and non-tribal lands.
“It would, I think, be a dangerous precedent to work against all parties that were originally involved,” Strauch said in response to questions from a committee member. “And I know that our governor has worked very closely with these tribes and has intimate knowledge of the issues they face.”
Strauch was referring to negotiations in Augusta on a more sweeping overhaul of the 1980 settlement agreement. Tribal leaders have been working with state lawmakers and negotiating with Governor Janet Mills for several years on a bill to restore the tribal sovereignty.
But the fate of this bill is murky, at best. Mills, who fought with the tribes in court while she was attorney general, said she supported some aspects of the bill but opposed other provisions of it. A separate bill from the Mills administration to allow tribes to offer sports betting seems to have a better chance.
The Mills administration has yet to take a position on Golden’s bill currently pending in Congress. In a letter sent to the subcommittee on Thursday, Mills’ chief legal counsel, Jerry Reid, said the office is reviewing the legislation and will file written testimony at a later date.
Currently, tribes in Maine can only be included in federal Indian laws if they are specifically added by name. Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation said it took precious time and money to lobby Congress to add him to the bill. And the tribes have succeeded only once in the past 42 years.
“When Congress passes a law intended to benefit the entire Indian county, we believe that is what should happen unless a tribal nation or state is specifically excluded from the law,” Francis said. . to every federal bill is nonsense.”
Golden’s bill received mixed reactions from the subcommittee. Republican Jay Obernolte of California said Congress should not consider undoing any part of the 1980s agreement without the consensus of the Maine governor, the congressional delegation and the tribes. But Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota said she was “outraged” when Maine did not allow the four tribes to participate in a pilot project created specifically for them by Congress under the Violence Against Us Act. the women.
“Therefore, I fully support the bill that is before us today,” McCollum said. “It’s not a clawback. It’s a way forward. We can’t have one group of tribal nations treated differently with their sovereignty than other tribal nations. from this country. “
In order to move forward, Golden’s bill will need to undergo a scoping review by the full House Natural Resources Committee. And it’s unclear if or when that would happen.