President Joe Biden speaks to virtual participants during a Tribal Nations Summit during Native American Heritage Month, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Washington. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

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For the first time in five years, tribal and federal leaders are meeting, virtually, as part of a White House summit early this week. They have a lot of work to do on issues ranging from climate change to violence against women to the ongoing COVID response.

Already, there have been important accomplishments, including a new executive order, signed by President Joe Biden on Monday, to further empower tribal governments to combat violence against tribal members, especially violence against women. As the order notes, tribal women are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes compared to other races.

The president also announced initiatives to include tribal expertise in federal climate change policies and to ensure tribal participation in the management and stewardship of federal lands.

Biden also cited tribal work to combat COVID, noting that early in the pandemic Native Americans contracted the illness at three times the rate of white Americans and died at twice the rate. Today, Native Americans have higher vaccination rates than other races and ethnicities in the U.S.

“Tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions,” Biden said in remarks to summit attendees.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis, who is participating in a panel on land and treaty rights on Tuesday, said the cooperative efforts announced by the president, along with years of work among tribes and federal agencies, show the benefits of government-to-government relationships, relationships that are strained at the state level in Maine.

“The federal model shows that governments work together best when there is respect for self governance,” Francis said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News editorial board.

He praised the Biden administration and its commitment to not only including tribal members in decisionmaking on matters ranging from climate change to land use to law enforcement but for hiring more than 50 Native Americans for jobs in the administration, including the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland, who heads the Department of the Interior.

Francis notes that the federal government hasn’t given up any of its rights as it has developed a means of tribal self governance that works.

This thinking and practice, which is based on mutual trust, can be a model for a new relationship between the state of Maine and tribal governments, he said.

As we’ve written before, it is 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.

More than two years ago, a task force was created and charged with reviewing and proposing changes to the settlement act. That group developed a set of 22 recommendations on issues such as taxation, land acquisition, fishing and hunting, natural resources, gaming and criminal jurisdiction. That led to sweeping legislation, which was unfortunately derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Legislature’s quick adjournment last year.

The effort got back on track this year with another bill, LD 1626, that would implement the committee’s recommendations. The bill was pushed off again by the Legislature and will be considered next year.

We understand that considering and negotiating changes to the settlement act and resulting laws and practices is difficult work, and we are encouraged that efforts at reaching consensus in some of these areas are ongoing.

As they consider the task force’s recommendations and other proposed changes when the Legislature reconvenes, lawmakers and tribal leaders should focus on areas where updates to the settlement act are the most straightforward and feasible and will bring the most benefit, to both the tribes and the state.

The federal-tribal relationship, which was strengthened in this week’s summit, offers a productive model for this work.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...