President Jimmy Carter shakes hands with Terrance Polchies of Houlton, a representative of the Maliseet Indian Nation, after signing the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 at the White House. "Sovereign," a new podcast produced by students at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, explains through interviews with tribal leaders the circumstances that led to them signing the settlement act, and why they want to amend it in favor of tribal self-governance.

Decades after a settlement act in Maine gave native peoples the means to potentially buy land but took away many rights, a new Maine-made podcast told through interviews with Wabanaki tribal leaders explains the circumstances behind a long push for self-governance, which may finally be realized in 2022.

“Sovereign,” a four-episode podcast, has been released as state legislators prepare to revisit a bill that could restore self-governance to the tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy.

The bill, LD 1626, would amend a state law made 41 years ago and restore the right of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to self-govern within their respective territories, just like the other 570 federally recognized tribes in 49 states in the U.S.

Along with three fellow student collaborators, podcast co-producer Sarah Esocoff made “Sovereign” while studying with the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies, a branch of Portland’s Maine College of Art. She believes that everyone in Maine should know more about the tribes’ push for self-governance.

“People should listen to the indigenous people who are being very vocal about this stuff and the indigenous activists who are trying to make changes,” Esocoff said.

“Sovereign” is an attempt to help that effort.

For decades, tribal leaders have called the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act “a colossal failure.” 

Among the tribal leaders interviewed for the podcast is Darren Ranco, who teaches federal Native American law at the University of Maine in Orono, where he is the Chair of Native American Programs and Coordinator of Native American Research.

“The more educated people are about these matters the better chance we have at solving public policy dilemmas,” Ranco said. “The Settlement Act is one of those.”

The federal settlement act, and the state law that accompanies it, have been on the books since 1980. The settlements came after the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation made a land claim in the 1970s concerning roughly nine million acres inside Maine’s borders.

Led by Gov. James Longley, state officials pushed back on the land claims. Longley accused the native tribes of “economic blackmail” that could “harm innocent fellow Maine citizens,” and furthering a cultural divide in the state.  

“It’s both infuriating and almost laughable to think about it in those terms,” Ranco said.

As legal proceedings wore on and officials discussed a settlement, Longley opposed federal payout to the tribes, according to a BDN report in 1978. But President Jimmy Carter was eager to get a deal together that worked for the tribes and for Maine, and any negotiations would need federal approval.

With the Carter administration coming to an end, and newly elected president Ronald Reagan was unsympathetic toward the tribes, tribal leaders signed the settlement acts. The U.S. government put $81.5 million in a trust for indigenous people to buy back a small fraction of their original land.

As Ranco sees it, the fact that the settlement money came from federal and not state funds means that Maine has not properly been held accountable.

In exchange, the Settlement Acts gave the state jurisdiction over the tribes within Maine’s boundaries. They also included a clause that shielded the pact from being affected by federal laws, meaning that Wabanaki tribes would be bound to the 1980 settlement even if U.S. policy toward Native Americans changed in the future.

But times are changing. 

In 2020, a bipartisan task force composed of tribal leaders, legislators and state officials issued a report with recommendations to restore tribal self-governance on a range of issues, like taxation, hunting and fishing rights and the prosecution of crimes on tribal lands. It would also modify the existing law to ensure that the tribes would enjoy “rights, privileges, power, duties and immunities” similar to other federally recognized tribes.

After momentum was slowed by the pandemic and talks stalled with Gov. Janet Mills, LD 1626 was introduced at the beginning of the last legislative session, and will be revisited in January.

Isaac Kestenbaum, the director of the Salt Institute, said podcasts offer listeners a fresh path into complex issues of narrative journalism which is ideal for topics like the tribal sovereignty in Maine.

“The medium kind of demands stories that are propulsive and gripping, and it’s very intimate, because a lot of people listen with their earbuds in,” Kestenbaum said.

The four students in the inaugural podcasting class chose the subject collaboratively, studying with Robert Smith of National Public Radio. They consulted editorially with Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nations Tribal Ambassador, on certain issues of language and description because the students were coming from outside the state and none were Native American.

For example, Kestenbaum said one thing that came up in those consultations was the use of the possessive – as in the question, “What do Maine’s tribes want?” Dana pointed out that this language is flawed, Kestenbaum recalled, because calling them “Maine’s tribes” implies that the communities belong to the state, which is precisely at odds with the issue of sovereignty.

“If you’re not sensitive to that, maybe you wouldn’t have noticed it but that’s the kind of small detail that we wanted to get right,” Kestenbaum said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated the source of funds put in the trust for Indigenous people to buy back land.