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On Monday, Maine celebrates its second Indigenous Peoples’ Day after the Legislature approved a switch from Columbus Day in 2019. It was an overdue recognition of our tribal neighbors and the important role that indigenous Americans have played through Maine’s history and the history of our country.
“When we take a traumatic event in history and transform it into a chance for healing and enriching gaps between our communities it is a powerful thing,” Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana, who led the effort to change the holiday in Bangor several years ago, has explained in the past.
The Legislature delivered another symbolic victory last year by making Maine the first state to ban native American mascots in public schools.
Symbolic action, however, cannot be the only action. It’s time for meaningful reform to parts of the 1980 land claim settlement that, while ending a significant amount of uncertainty at the time about ownership of two-thirds of the land in the state of Maine, also set the stage for decades of friction. It is in the state and the tribes’ best interest to rebalance this relationship as one of cooperative, self-governing partners. It’s also the right thing to do.
“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 editorial board in early 2020. “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.”
“We want to prosper… and until we change this agreement, we’re not allowed to do that,” Vice Chief Elizabeth “Maggie” Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point also told the BDN early last year.
A task force charged with reviewing and proposing changes to the settlement act developed a set of 22 recommendations in January on issues such as taxation, land acquisition, fishing and hunting, natural resources, gaming and criminal jurisdiction. That led to LD 2094, sweeping legislation that has gone through months of scrutiny in the Judiciary Committee and been the subject of negotiations with the state’s executive branch.
We’ve been cautious since February about the complexity of some of the issues at hand, and were very encouraged when the committee signed off on LD 2094 this summer while also separating out some of the more contentious or unresolved parts of legislation into separate bills. That approach could help prevent the more complicated or politically difficult issues from dragging the whole effort down.
Unfortunately, despite that encouraging movement in the committee, the tribal sovereignty effort has been swallowed up in the Legislature’s inability to agree on coming back into session during the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, it seems any full vote on these bills may wait until the Legislature reconvenes next year.
No matter which party or parties control the two houses of the Maine Legislature in 2021, the commitment to collaborative and meaningful reform that has been put into LD 2094 must carry over along with the actual legislation. That productive, respectful dialogue must continue, and must translate into action.
Recognizing our tribal neighbors on Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a nice and powerful gesture. But state leaders also must follow through on the hard work that has already been done to rebalance this complicated, critical relationship.