AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort to change Maine’s relationship with tribes stalled with pushback from the Janet Mills administration, which has concerns about a bill aimed at ensuring tribal sovereignty.
A proposed bill states that the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians shall “enjoy rights, privileges, powers, duties and immunities similar to those of other federally recognized Indian tribes within the United States.”
Mills’ chief legal adviser, Jerry Reid, expressed “serious concerns” about Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross’ bill this week.
“Our hope and intent was to work with tribal representatives in an effort to negotiate amendments to these bills or an alternative bill that could be something we could support,” Reid said. “Those efforts have not borne fruit at this point.”
The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act effectively allows the state to treat tribes as municipalities much to the frustration of tribes who want the same sovereignty enjoyed by federally recognized tribes.
Ross, a Democrat, said lawmakers must recognize and honor tribes and “affirm their inherent sovereignty in this territory.”
“We are very ready for a new dawn of tribal-state relations,” Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana said. The 1980 settlement, she said, has been used “to oppress tribes and undermine tribal sovereignty.”
But legislators and tribal leaders have questioned if the bill can get the attention it needs during a legislative session strained by the pandemic.
Outstanding issues included tribal gambling and tribal land that’s spread out over the state, beyond the reservations. Mills, a Democrat, said she’s concerned that the proposal could create disputes, rather than solve them.
The delays are frustrating but provide “an opportunity to keep our energy and collaboration around this important issue growing,” Dana said.
Eleven states have state-recognized tribes — Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. In some states recognition authorizes resources, liaison positions, or a commission made up of state and tribal representatives to discuss tribal affairs. Some states have state-recognized reservations.
The Alaska Legislature is considering a bill that would formally recognize the 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, without restricting or limiting state jurisdiction.
Since 2010, at least 20 states have considered legislation that would adopt a formal process for recognizing tribes.
Indian Country Today’s Joaqlin Estus contributed to this report.