Penobscot Tribal council member James Neptune watches an eagle fly over the Penobscot River in 2003 as the Penobscot River Restoration Project was announced. Credit: Kevin Bennett / BDN

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John Maddaus is a member of the Committee on Indian Relations of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

The Act to Implement the Maine Indian Claims Settlement passed by the state Legislature in 1980 contains provisions that restrict the Wabanaki tribes’ self-determination and deny the tribes access to the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by 570 other federally recognized tribes under federal Indian law. These provisions have given rise to many lawsuits and other conflicts between the state and the tribes over the past 40 years.

The Maine Legislature recently adjourned its first session, and carried over to the second session a bill, L.D. 1626, that would make changes to the implementing act, specifically changes sought by the Wabanaki Tribes and recommended by a task force of the Legislature that met and deliberated during 2019.

Gov. Janet Mills has expressed “serious concerns” about that bill.

Think back to October 2018. Mills was a candidate for governor. The preceding eight years had been a time of incendiary rhetoric and division under the then-current occupant of the Blaine House. Mills was running as someone who would cool the rhetoric, bring people together and heal divisions.

Mills was also the state attorney general at the time. She had been involved in some high-profile court cases between the state and the Wabanaki tribes, including Penobscot v. Mills. That case centers on the question of whether Penobscot Nation territory includes the waters of the main stem of the Penobscot River, as the Penobscot Nation asserts, or only the islands in the river, as the state asserts.

At a campaign stop in Bangor that October, Janet Mills repeated her intention to be a governor who would bring people together and heal divisions. Then she asked for questions. I recall pointing out that among the divisions of recent Maine history were the divisions between the state and the Wabanaki tribes. I acknowledged that as attorney general, she had done what she felt she needed to do in that position. And I asked her whether, in the position of governor, she would seek to heal the divisions between the tribes and the state. She said she would, and she gave, as an example of healing, the success of the Penobscot River Restoration Project.

Candidate Mills was right, I believe, in suggesting that the Penobscot River Restoration Project could serve as a model for healing divisions between the state and the Wabanaki tribes.

Mills has expressed serious concern about the “sweeping changes” contained in the bill to change the Settlement Act. The removal of two dams from the lower stem of the Penobscot River, and the addition or improvement of fish passageways at two other dams as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, could also qualify as “sweeping changes” in the river’s ecosystem.

The removal of the dams and installation of fishways required good faith negotiations between the corporation that owned the dams, state and federal agencies, the Penobscot Nation and conservation organizations. Similarly, the removal of barriers to tribal self-determination will require good faith negotiations between the governor, the tribes, members of the Legislature and statewide and local community organizations.

Until those dams were removed, they were barriers to the migrations of many species of sea-run fish, just as provisions in the Settlement Act are barriers to the Wabanaki tribes accessing the rights and responsibilities of 150 federal Indian laws passed since 1980.

The millions of fish that have been able to access spawning areas in the Penobscot River watershed for the first time in over 100 years could symbolize the substantial federal funds that the tribes could access once the barriers in the Settlement Act are removed.

Removal of some dams and modifications of others was a complex task, comparable to the task of removal of some provisions of the Settlement Act and revision of other provisions.

The Penobscot River Restoration Project took a lot of hard work by people who recognized how their efforts could benefit the river’s ecosystem, and everyone and everything that lives within it. If we could only think of the work of making changes to the Settlement Act as the Tribal Self-determination Restoration Project, we would be on that right track toward the healing that would benefit us all!