Gov. Janet Mills speaks at the signing ceremony to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Friday, April 26, 2019, at the State House in Augusta. William J. Nicholas Sr., Governor of the Passamaquoddy Tribe-Indian Township, left, and Clarissa Sabattus, Tribal Chief of Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians attend the event. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — After months of negotiations, Gov. Janet Mills’ administration on Wednesday reached an agreement with tribes and lawmakers over a domestic violence bill that has been a major hurdle in wider tribal sovereignty negotiations.

Leaders of the four federally recognized tribes in Maine and Gov. Janet Mills have tried for months to agree on a bill passed by the Legislature last year that will allow the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy tribe to prosecute certain domestic violence crimes under the federal Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.

Mills held the bill since last summer, citing concerns that the constitutional rights of non-native defendants wouldn’t be protected in tribal courts. Tribal leaders have pushed back, saying federal law gives equivalent protections to non-native defendants and that including more specific language would undermine the tribes’ sovereign rights.

Those issues were settled Wednesday, when a new version of the measure was unanimously endorsed by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Linda Pistner, deputy legal counsel for Mills, said the governor was “pleased” to support the measure after meeting with tribal chiefs earlier in the day. It will go to the House and Senate for votes.

Pistner said the Democratic governor has always been supportive of the bill’s goal, but her final approval was secured with the addition of an explicit statement saying constitutional rights would apply to non-native defendants in tribal proceedings. The bill would require 12-person juries in those cases; the Penobscot Nation has juries of six.

“I’m thrilled that we are going to send the message that native women’s lives matter just as much as yours or mine,” said Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross, D-Portland, the bill’s sponsor, “and we’re going to make sure the tribal courts have the sovereign jurisdictional rights to prosecute anyone who violates them.”

The new version would also give tribes jurisdiction over crimes committed on reservations and current and future trust lands. It allows the Passamaquoddy to prosecute crimes between members of federally recognized tribes on its land, which the Penobscot Nation is allowed to do. Tribal courts have no jurisdiction over crimes committed between non-native people.

Since taking office in early 2019, Mills made efforts to repair Maine’s fraught relations with the tribes, including banning Native American mascots from public schools and signing a bill to tighten water-quality standards. But tribal leaders feared the governor’s hesitation on the domestic violence bill has raised concerns about their broader efforts to regain self-governance over criminal matters and other areas through changes to state law.

Those fears were borne out two weeks ago when Mills raised concerns about land jurisdiction and taxation issues and the “sweeping nature” of a bill from a state task force on tribal relations that proposes 22 changes to Maine law that would overhaul tribal sovereignty provisions.

The federal domestic violence bill passed with the aim of ensuring crimes committed against tribal women on tribal land are prosecuted. Nearly half of tribal women will experience rape, phyiscal violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Since the 2013 law was reauthorized, 18 tribes have implemented it, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

But Maine’s tribes are boxed out due to state law that essentially treats tribes like municipalities under the state’s jurisdiction after a 1980 land-claim settlement. It included provisions saying the state’s tribes couldn’t benefit from federal law unless that law specifically mentions them. Proposed bills to reauthorize the domestic violence bill in Congress do mention Maine tribes — but negotiations on the issue have stalled in the Senate.

Other criminal recommendations include giving the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Passamaquoddy tribe the same jurisdiction over crimes committed on their lands granted to the Penobscot Nation and giving tribes concurrent jurisdiction over crimes committed by natives against non-natives. A work session on the omnibus bill is scheduled for next week.