Michael Carpenter practices law in Houlton. He served in the Maine Senate from 2016-2020 and from 1976-1986. He also has served as Maine attorney general from 1991-1995.
In 1980, as the state senator from Houlton, I voted for the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. Like many of my colleagues at that time, I regarded this legislation and the corresponding federal act as a reasonable compromise to settle land claims involving two-thirds of the state — claims the Maine tribes had made following a string of favorable court rulings in the 1970s.
I believed that removing the legal cloud of uncertainty over a huge chunk of our state was necessary for Maine given what was happening in the courts over land claims made by other Indian tribes across the country. I also was optimistic the opportunity to purchase 300,000 acres of land would create new opportunities for the tribes to prosper here in Maine.
I continued to hold those views during my four years as Maine’s attorney general from 1991-1995. It was a fairly quiet time vis-a-vis the state’s legal relationship with the tribes. At that time, tribal-state relations seemed largely settled. However, by the time I was reelected to the Maine Senate in 2016 it had become clear tribal relations with the state had deteriorated. Increasingly, those disputes were ending up in court. Instead of working with the tribes, we were unnecessarily in the courts squandering taxpayer dollars.
Upon becoming the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee in 2018, I sat down with my co-chair, Rep. Donna Bailey of Saco, suggesting that we take bold action and tackle head-on the 1980 settlement act. The Senate president and the House speaker agreed, and we got down to business.
The Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Houlton Band of Maliseet and the Aroostook Band of Micmac leaders were invited to participate in the task force. They cautiously agreed and their candid and detailed critiques opened our eyes to how and why the settlement act has failed to create effective and flexible relationships between the tribes and state. We learned that because of the act’s restrictive language, Maine tribes have not benefited from more than 150 federal laws passed since 1980. Laws that wouldn’t just benefit the tribes in Maine but rural Maine. These laws, policies and executive orders have benefited 570 tribes in 49 states, but not our tribes in Maine and not rural Maine.
In many instances, tribes in Maine lost opportunities that would have created economic opportunities and improved the health and welfare of their members and surrounding communities. Tribes in Maine shouldn’t be the only Indigenous people in the country singled out to be excluded from federal legislation that is specifically meant to address their needs, but that’s what has been happening for more than 40 years due to restrictive language in the settlement act.
I’m proud of the work our bipartisan task force did in making 22 recommendations that collectively seek to restore the fairness and respect to the tribes in Maine — fairness and respect, that, in retrospect, was undermined and diminished by the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement and Implementing Acts of 1980. The task force’s recommendations are all about removing injustice and inequality in the jurisdictional relationship between the tribes and our state — barriers that have seriously impaired the tribes’ ability for self-determination for more than 40 years and stymied economic development in rural Maine.
A minority objected to our recommendations, saying they are too sweeping or that the 1980 settlement acts should not be changed. (There were roughly 200 supporters who testified in favor of the legislation and five who were opposed.) I disagree. Nothing in life is set in stone. I no longer embrace views I held strongly more than 40 years ago on any number of issues, including how the government-to-government relationship between the tribes and state should be understood and practiced.
I’m hopeful LD 1626 , the bill that encompasses the task force’s recommendations will finally be approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills in 2022. LD 1626 provides us the opportunity to right a wrong and restore the full rights of self-determination to the tribes in Maine that are enjoyed by 570 federal tribes across the nation in 49 states.
We must modernize the settlement act and make the changes that will begin a long-overdue healing process between our state and the tribes.