Native American tribes in Maine took an important step toward greater sovereignty as the state Legislature voted to let most federal laws apply to Wabanaki tribes, putting them on the same footing as other federally recognized tribes across the country.
Both the Maine House and Senate approved the bill with enough support Wednesday to overcome a potential veto of the bill.
“Today signifies a landmark victory in the pursuit of Wabanaki self-determination," Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said Thursday in a statement. The Penobscot are one member of the Wabanaki Nations, which encompasses Indigenous peoples living in what is now Maine.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has opposed the bill, sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, expressing concerns that it could lead to confusion and lawsuits. Her office had no immediate comment on the legislative action.
Tribes in Maine are set apart from the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the country because of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which stipulates they’re bound by state law and treats tribal reservations much like municipalities. That 1980 settlement for the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet, along with a 1991 agreement for the Mi’kmaq, set the tribes apart from others in the country.
“Let’s take a small step, placing the Wabanaki tribes on the same footing as the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the country,” Republican Rep. Mark Babin of Fort Fairfield said Wednesday, speaking in support of the proposal at the Maine State House in Augusta.
Rep. Aaron Dana, who is the Passamaquoddy tribal representative, cited a specific example to show how the current system is failing: After pipes froze at a health clinic during a cold snap, his tribe was not able to seek direct aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency like others could have done in the same situation.
He thanked lawmakers for their bipartisan support for the proposal. "Both sides of the aisle understand tribal issues are not partisan issues, they’re Maine issues,” he said Thursday.
Senate President Troy Jackson said the Legislature's action makes strides in repairing tribal relationship after previous “symbolic gestures and empty promises.”
“This is by no means the end of our work to respect our neighbors inherent rights and restore this vital relationship. But it is an enormous step in the right direction,” he said.