Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at the signing ceremony to establish Indigenous Peoples' Day, Friday, April 26, 2019, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Members of the Penobscot Nation are far more likely to be unemployed, die younger and earn less than their non-tribal peers in neighboring communities.

“So why do those disparities exist, just sometimes being separated by a 500 foot bridge?” Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis asked during a recent meeting with the Bangor Daily News editorial board, referring to the bridge between the Penobscot Nation and Old Town. “There’s a lot of reasons for it, but certainly our ability to address it is one of them.”

Francis and representatives from the four other tribal governments in Maine feel diminished and held back by the restrictions in a 1980 agreement that settled tribal claims to two-thirds of the land in Maine.

More than a bridge has separated the Penobscot and other tribes from neighboring communities. There is a complicated history here, no doubt about it. But the Legislature now has an opportunity to reevaluate some of those issues and bridge some of the divides that have plagued state-tribal relations for decades.

“We want to prosper… and until we change this agreement, we’re not allowed to do that,” said Vice Chief Elizabeth “Maggie” Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point.

“Treaties are living documents, like this agreement,” Dana added. “We should be able to go back and change it, and it hasn’t been [changed] for 40 years.”

The landmark agreement ended a brief era of great uncertainty for towns, landowners, banks and others in much of Maine. But, it also set off nearly 40 years of friction between the tribes and state government.

Much of that friction stems from the fact that, because of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, the tribes in Maine are treated differently and have different rights than all the other tribes in the United States. In Maine, the tribes are essentially treated as municipalities (or less than municipalities, the tribes might argue). They have far less autonomy over issues, such as gaming, criminal justice and taxation, than other federally recognized tribes in the U.S.

That has contributed to the woes that Francis enumerated. It has also led to Maine losing many economic development opportunities, the tribal representatives said.

Decades of frustration over a lack of tribal sovereignty has boiled over in recent years with lawsuits, breakdowns in tribal-state relations and the withdrawal of tribal representatives to the Maine Legislature.

These failures have harmed Maine, but most of all they have harmed members of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet tribes.

“It would be nice if we could all be partners in economic development, and in tourism,” Aroostook Band of Micmacs Chief Edward Peter-Paul told the BDN. “But if you always fight with this person, that’s the hard part … we want to be friends with the state. We want to see the state prosper.”

So, Maine leaders must find a way beyond this dysfunctional relationship. The central point of contention is that the tribes and state have different views of where tribal sovereignty ends and state authority begins. Without resolving this fundamental issue, the cycle of disagreements and disengagement will continue, hurting the tribes and the state.

“The stuff that we could be doing if the state would just be a partner, versus trying to control what we’re doing, could be huge,“ Chief Clarissa Sabattus of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, told the BDN. The Aroostook County tribe is already one of the region’s largest employers, offering jobs and services to tribal and non-tribal residents.

Resetting that balance now falls to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which will begin consideration of sweeping changes to the settlement act, in the form of LD 2094, with a public hearing Friday.

The bill encapsulates the recommendations of a recent task force that called for 22 amendments to the settlement act to, essentially, increase tribal authority over criminal justice, taxation, natural resources, land acquisition and gaming. In some instances, the task force recommended that federal law supercede Maine law with regard to tribal rights and jurisdiction.

While we share the tribes’ frustration with the state’s historical unwillingness to reconsider many provisions of the act, the committee’s work must focus on how to improve upon the 1980 agreement without injecting unnecessary uncertainty back into the state-tribal relationship and the relationships between tribes and their surrounding communities and industries.

For these and other reasons, John Paterson, Maine’s lead attorney on the settlement case, urged a fuller understanding of the consequences when considering such broad changes. “Suffice it to say the consequences of its recommendations are far more complex than the report would lead one to believe,” In a letter to the Judiciary Committee. “Further, some of the recommendations are framed in such ambiguous terms that it is difficult to ascertain the full intent of the task force.”

As they consider the task force’s sweeping recommendation, committee members — and other lawmakers — should keep watch for areas where updates to the act are the most straightforward and feasible and will bring the most benefit, to both the tribes and the state. These areas can be the starting point for a commitment to work toward changes that will empower the tribes.

This work, of course, won’t be easy, but lawmakers must be guided by the goal of a relationship that allows for greater tribal sovereignty. Simply telling the tribes that they signed an agreement and are therefore bound by its terms is an unproductive dead end. Laws are revisited and updated all the time. Even the U.S. Constitution was written to allow amendments.

The task force recommendations offer a starting point, but they are not the full solution.

As dramatic — but hopefully not endlessly drawn out — as the process of revisiting the Settlement Act sounds, it would be preferable to the status quo that has held back both the tribes and the state, and cost precious goodwill. A thoughtful, balanced update of the settlement could bring needed certainty to the state, tribes and their neighbors.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...