U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, center of the front row, poses with leaders from Maine's four federally recognized tribes during a meeting at the Penobscot Nation's Indian Island Reservation on Thursday. Credit: Courtesy of the Penobscot Nation

Representatives of the four federally recognized Native American tribes in Maine on Thursday asked the nation’s highest-ranking official on Native American affairs for help in gaining sovereignty during a meeting on the Penobscot Nation’s Indian Island Reservation.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland met with leaders of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy tribes at Pleasant Point and Indian Township. The group discussed issues the Wabanaki tribes face due to federal and state laws from 40 years ago, which grant them less control over their own affairs than other tribes across the nation.

The meeting came a day before Haaland is scheduled to visit Acadia National Park. Haaland’s visit to Maine is the first from a member of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet.

Thursday’s meeting was especially symbolic because Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo tribe, is the first Native American to serve as U.S. secretary of the interior, which oversees federal Native American policy through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland is also the first Native American cabinet secretary.

Asked whether Haaland supported the Wabanaki tribes’ sovereignty efforts, Department of the Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said the meeting was part of the agency’s support for tribal self-governance and self-determination and “commitment to ensure all Tribes have a seat at the table.”

The Wabanaki tribes have long condemned the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act — the federal law that transferred land to the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy tribe and the Houlton Band of Maliseets — for depriving them of the sovereignty other tribes enjoy across the nation as well as critical federal benefits.

The Wabanaki tribes won a victory in January 2020 after a legislative task force endorsed providing the tribes more autonomy, including on judicial matters and gaming. Last August, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee endorsed a package incorporating many of the task force’s findings, but such legislation has yet to pass.

“These are matters of fairness and equity for the tribes and rural Maine,” Houlton Band of Maliseet Chief Clarissa Sabattis said. “The tribes in Maine are asking to be treated like the other 570 federally recognized tribes.”

Efforts to change tribal relations in Maine have been delayed until the next legislative session, the Penobscot Nation said in a press release. 

BDN editor Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.