Maine lawmakers grapple with thorny issue of tribal sovereignty | Nation / world
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The tribes of Maine gave up some of their rights to the state when they settled their land claims more than 40 years ago.
They want to modify this agreement so that they can enjoy the same rights of autonomy as other Native Americans.
The Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq see this week’s legislative debate, ahead of the midterm elections, as their best opportunity to establish the right to self-determination.
The proposed changes come amid President Joe Biden’s administration seeking to ensure tribes are consulted early when it comes to policies or actions that affect them. He also sought ways for the federal government and tribes to co-manage federal lands that are part of the tribes’ ancestral homeland.
But unlike the hundreds of tribal reservations across the United States, the three Passamaquoddy and Penobscot reservations in Maine are governed like municipalities and bound by state laws under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.
In Maine, the large Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes operate their own police departments and health clinics, but do not have full autonomy over matters pertaining to their lands. The state and the tribes clashed over environmental, fish and wildlife rules.
The change could come with votes in the state Legislature starting Tuesday.
One of the bills would amend land claims law to ensure tribes have control over their lands comparable to that of other tribes in the United States. Of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the country, approximately 325 have reservation land.
Another bill would ensure that the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Pleasant Point can regulate their own drinking water, drill wells on tribal-owned land, for example, and work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instead of be bound by state regulatory agencies.
On Monday, about 300 tribal members and supporters gathered at the State House and marched to the home of Governor Janet Mills, who opposed aspects of both proposals.
One of the speakers, 19-year-old Passamaquoddy Noela Altvater, told the crowd that clean water is available virtually everywhere in Maine except on the Pleasant Point reservation where she grew up.
“Our community has been stripped and kept away from this basic need for our entire existence,” she said.
Chief Maggie Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, also known as Sipayik, put it in no uncertain terms.
“Our culture is clear: water is life. And for the Passamaquoddy in Sipayik, it’s poison,” Dana said.
For the tribes, it has been a long and frustrating battle since they traded some rights with the state as part of an $81.5 million settlement signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. The settlement may be modified, but only with the agreement of both States. and the tribes.
This settlement for the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Maliseet, along with a 1991 agreement for the federally recognized Mi’kmaq, put the tribes of Maine on a different footing from tribes elsewhere in the country.
In Maine, opponents fear unintended consequences, like tribes flexing their muscles on the environment, fish and wildlife, and economic development.
This is one of the reasons the Democratic governor of Maine has not come out in favor of the sovereignty bill. If approved, she could veto it.
A spokesperson said the governor is committed to improving drinking water quality by working with the local water district, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and the federal government. But Mills didn’t like a tribal leader‘s suggestion that she offered “beads and trinkets” instead of substantial proposals.
“The governor is focused on bringing people together to solve problems, not trading insults at press conferences,” spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said.
Despite the governor’s opposition, the tribes still see it as their best chance, potentially for a while, to push the bills through because they have the support of Democratic leaders.
As the midterm elections approach, Republicans could take control of one or both Democratic-controlled chambers in the State House, as well as the governorship, hampering efforts to advance the proposals.
Maggie Dana said the tribes are educating lawmakers and creating alliances, and they hope for change.
It’s time for the state to live up to its motto Dirigo, which is Latin for “I lead,” instead of being the latest to extend Native American rights to the same rights enjoyed by others, said Dana.