Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a January news conference. Accompanying the governor at left, is Donna Loring, then the governor's senior advisor on tribal affairs. She left the administration in November and now says a controversial agreement governing the state's relationship with tribes should be "annihilated." Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The former tribal adviser to Gov. Janet Mills believes sovereignty should be restored to the Wabanaki people, but she said it will take a long and piecemeal dismantling of fraught agreements between the state and tribes.

Donna Loring of the Penobscot Nation, who lives in Bradley, left Mills’ office in early November after a unique tenure in Maine government. Her tenure saw improvements to Maine’s notoriously rocky relationship with its tribes, including attention-grabbing but largely symbolic laws outlawing tribal mascots in public schools, the establishment of Indigenous Peoples Day and a major bill handing tribes more jurisdiction over domestic violence cases on their land.

But the relationship also faced great tests as a revived effort to restore sovereignty to the tribes came to Augusta last session. Judicial committee lawmakers endorsed changes to state law, despite Mills’ stiff resistance to some provisions and the Democratic governor’s view that the changes were rushed. Another tribal push to restore sovereignty is set to take place in 2021.

Loring’s appointment at the start of Mills’ term was heralded as proof the governor was serious about fixing Maine’s relationship with the tribes, eroded by ongoing lawsuits and disputes over the 1980 Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, a federal law enshrining an agreement between the state and tribes — the latter of whom say it relegated them to town-like status.

It is unclear if Mills will replace her, despite tribal advocates saying her role was crucial in maintaining communication with the governor’s office. But in her first interview since leaving office, Loring said she is confident Mills is willing to make strides on sovereignty, despite friction on some issues.

But that could be a more laborious process than a single two-year legislative session can hold. To start, the law governing the state’s relationship with the tribes was not negotiated in good faith, Loring said, making for a shaky foundation for the negotiations.

“I still feel to a certain extent that the land claims act should just be annihilated,” Loring said, referring to the state law implementing the agreement. “You should just get rid of the whole damn thing and start on a new footing.”

Loring has also called for the state’s courts to revisit two 19th-century legal cases that have been used to invalidate Maine’s treaties with tribes. Public education is also a barrier, Loring said, noting how a task force dedicated to making change recommendations spent only weeks on the subject. Getting the broader Legislature on board could take even longer.

“It’s like a carpenter trying to do brain surgery,” she said. “There’s just no way they can successfully make these policy changes in a fair and equitable way unless they know what they’re doing.”

Loring joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1966 and saw combat in the Vietnam War. She was the first woman graduate from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to serve as police chief in Maine when she became the Penobscot Nation’s police chief from 1984 to 1990. Later, she was the first woman to lead security at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Donna Loring poses at her Bradley home in this 2008 file photo as a state representative from the Penobscot Nation. Credit: Michael C. York / AP

Her time in the State House began in 1999, when she served as an aide-de-camp to then-Gov. Angus King, as the non-voting tribal representative for the Penobscot Nation for a cumulative 12 years. Loring again made history when she was appointed to chair a task force on creating a state-owned casino in Maine. She passed a bill requiring public schools to teach tribal histories — something many Maine schools have not yet fulfilled.

In a December interview, Mills said she was “not sure” if Loring would be replaced, saying she was “unique.” The two served together in the Legislature, and Mills sometimes consults her still.

“I’m not sure if there’s anybody who could just walk in and take her place,” Mills said.

Tribal chiefs sent a letter to Mills last Friday requesting that the governor refill the position. Maulian Dana, the ambassador for the Penobscot Nation and Loring’s niece, said much of what made that position helpful to the tribes were Loring’s unique attributes. She set up weekly calls with the tribal chiefs to answer questions and was instrumental in orchestrating conversations with state departments during the legislative process.

“She has a great understanding of how the government works and is well-respected in our communities,” Dana said.

Mills’ concerns about the omnibus sovereignty bill took some task force members by surprise last year, partially because some members said Loring never voiced them during meetings. Loring acknowledged some tribal members may have been frustrated with her tenure. But she said did not allow those criticisms to distract her from her greater goal.

“I had to just not pay attention to these side fires and do what I could do, and that’s what I did,” she said.