Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana speaks to the school board for MSAD 54 in Skowhegan in this Dec. 6, 2018 photo. School officials eventually agreed to retire the school's "Indians" mascot. Credit: Maine Public

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine tribes are launching an advocacy effort to keep their push for sovereignty on voters’ minds as the future of a wide-spanning bill before the out-of-session Legislature looks uncertain.

That bill was introduced last session as a vehicle for sweeping changes to a 1980s agreement between the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy tribe and Maine. Wabanaki leaders say the agreement reduced them to the status of municipalities in the state. The state has separate, but similar laws governing the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. The latter tribe never ratified the agreement.

The bill was supported by the Legislature’s top two Democrats, racial justice and environmental advocates, but faced heavy resistance from gaming, municipality and textile industry groups. Gov. Janet Mills, who made improving the state-tribal relationship one of her administration’s goals after eight years as attorney general, raised concerns about the scope of the bill.

Like the hundreds of other bills the Legislature left on the table when they hastily adjourned in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the future of the bill is uncertain. It is unclear if the Legislature will reconvene in 2020 and any session could be abbreviated. A bill with as many moving parts as the omnibus sovereignty bill might struggle in such a session.

In June, Maine’s four federally recognized tribes founded the Wabanaki Alliance, which hearkens back to the Wabanaki Confederacy that united tribes in present-day Maine and eastern Canada in 1602. They were allies of the colonists during the American Revolution under the Treaty of Watertown, the first U.S. treaty after declaring independence.

The idea behind the Wabanaki Alliance is to keep the tribes’ issues on Mainers’ minds, with the hope that the bill will not be left for 2021. It plans to do mostly online outreach efforts on the history of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and its effects on the tribes.

Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation ambassador and president of the alliance, said the current political climate — particularly the concerns around racial disparities raised by the pandemic — makes the timing more important than ever.

“It’s a really natural flow to have issues like tribal sovereignty be seen as a public health concern, as having economic ramifications,” she said. “It fits into the idea of responding to the pandemic and gives a sense of urgency.”

The virus has ravaged indigenous communities around the country, but Maine’s tribes have avoided that so far. The Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribes — the two tribes with the biggest populations — closed their borders to outside visitors, and community public health efforts have ensured medical and cleaning supplies reached vulnerable members.

Mills made some strides with the tribes, signing into law legislation that banned Native American mascots from public schools and renamed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. She signed a critical domestic violence bill giving tribes jurisdiction over those crimes committed on their land into law this session after months of discussion. Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said the governor shares in the tribes’ desire to continue to improve the state-tribal relationship.

Dana said the alliance hopes to build on that momentum this year, before a November election that could change the electoral makeup of the State House. Gideon is running to challenge incumbent Susan Collins for a U.S. Senate seat and is term-limited. The bill “is most likely to happen with current leadership,” Dana said.

Supporters feared the bill being broken into sections because it would make the package more vulnerable to political pressure. But both skeptics and supporters say that may need to occur if any of it is going to survive.

“I would never vote on it as one bill,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, who sits on the Judiciary Committee and whose district includes the Oxford Casino.

Keim has been wary of the scope of the bill since its introduction and maintained that more outside input on its myriad issues is needed, despite two days of testimony in the 2020 session. That is not possible given the limited nature of legislative hearings at the State House, she said.

Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, agreed, saying Democratic leaders gave lawmakers a “short leash” on leftover legislation. He said a Friday work session on the bill would give the committee the chance to decide what could be salvaged.

But Carpenter, who faces a November challenge for his seat from Assistant House Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, in a deeply Republican district, said he doubted the Legislature would change so drastically next session that work could not continue.

“I don’t think the Legislature will fall into the hands of people opposed to making changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act,” he said.