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Fight for Indigenous Sovereignty in Maine: A Chance to Make Things Better

February 24, 2023

This piece represents the opinion of the author s.
Sophie Burchell

Maine’s federally recognized Tribes (Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Houlton Band of Maliseet and Mi’kmaq Nation) are currently “treated like second-class sovereigns,” according to Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation. They have fewer legal rights and protections than any other Native peoples in the United States because of a pair of 1980 laws stripping them of their sovereignty. However, we have a chance to change this and return sovereignty to the Indigenous peoples of Maine—and the time to do so is now.

Maine’s Tribes are currently governed under the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) and its state counterpart, the Maine Implementing Act (MIA). These laws were agreed to as a last-ditch effort to reclaim Native lands after a decade of lawsuits and fighting. The agreement was made during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, at a time when it was clear that Ronald Reagan was going to become the next president. Reagan planned to veto the land claims, so, in order to avoid his veto pen and to make their efforts meaningful, the Wabanaki peoples accepted reduced sovereignty (the state would retain significant control over the Tribes) in exchange for land and limited self-government.

Given the sacred ties the Wabanaki have to their land and waters, they chose to accept the deals. Like many Tribes, the Wabanaki refer to the land as Turtle Island and believe in its power to give life. Indigenous peoples believe their bodies are deeply connected to the land and that it is humanity’s responsibility to nurture and take care of the earth. In Maine, the Children of Turtle Island allow us to be guests on their land, so their fight is our fight.

Although the 1980 settlement was considered a win at the time, it has had unintended consequences that are harmful and unjust to the Maine Tribes to this day. Language in the MICSA excluded Maine Tribes from new federal Indian laws without the express approval of the state, which has rarely been granted. In fact, a 2019 report commissioned by the Maine Legislature found that Maine Natives had been blocked from the benefits of 151 laws passed since 1980 that affect Indigenous peoples.

Not only does the MICSA deny Maine Tribes an equal opportunity to exercise sovereignty, but many of the pieces of legislation from which they are excluded could mean life or death. From not being able to request an emergency declaration in response to a natural disaster to not being allowed to prosecute non-Native defendants for domestic violence against Tribal members, the Tribes have seen their abilities to protect and provide for their citizens seriously inhibited. To put the significance of this into context: in the United States, 96 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence against Native women are non-Native.

This appalling reality must be changed. It requires significant legislative work, but luckily, activists are already working at the federal and state levels to achieve full sovereignty for the Maine Tribes. Some progress has already been made on essential issues. For instance, last spring, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed bills regarding the quality of Tribes’ drinking water, Tribal control of mobile sports betting and Tribal-state collaboration on issues like taxation.

However, Mills hasn’t taken action on what really matters: tribal sovereignty. Instead, she threatened to veto a bill (L.D. 1626)—which had strong, bipartisan support—that would have granted greater powers of self-government to the Maine Tribes. This bill didn’t make it out of the Legislature.

Legislation at the federal level similarly did not advance past the House of Representatives last year. Representative Jared Golden sponsored the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, which would have guaranteed Maine Tribes access to benefits from future federal laws governing Indian Country, even if they conflict with the state government’s current jurisdiction over the Tribes. It would have equalized the treatment of the Maine Tribes with the rest of the federally recognized Tribes in the nation. This bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July but was stalled in the Senate due to opposition from members of the Maine delegation, including Senators Susan Collins and Angus King.

Our leaders must start actively working to restore self-government and sovereignty for Maine Indigenous people. Justice for Maine Natives is long overdue, and you can help ensure that our elected officials know it’s time for real change. The aforementioned bills died at the end of the legislative session last year, so they (or bills like them) must be reintroduced. Call your lawmakers and urge them to introduce or support legislation that advances sovereignty for Maine Tribes. Write a letter to Mills and our Senators urging them to start engaging in the legislative process to support the Tribes. Submit op-eds and letters to the editor to support Indigenous sovereignty bills and spread awareness on why this legislation is vital for the Maine Tribes.

You don’t have to do this alone! NASA and Bowdoin Dems will be hosting an Action Hour: Fight for Indigenous Sovereignty in Maine on Wednesday, March 1, from 4:30–5:30 p.m. in the 24 College Living Room to make calls and write letters together. We invite you to join us and bring a friend to take action to fix this long-standing injustice facing the Maine Indigenous peoples.

Ryan Kovarovics is a member of the Class of 2023. Amory Malin (Umpqua), Kami Atcitty (Diné), Eliza Schotten, and Colter Adams are members of the Class of 2024. Gwen Gleason and Gracie Loney are members of the Class of 2025.


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