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This column has been updated.

Clarissa Sabattis is the chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. Kirk Francis is the chief of the Penobscot Nation. Maggie Dana is the chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik.  William Nicholas is the chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk. Edward Peter-Paul is the chief of the Mi’kmaq Nation.

For the past several decades, Congress has advanced the Indian policy of self-determination. Instead of trying to force Indian people to assimilate, like the failed policies of the past, Congress has recognized that supporting Indian nations’ and tribes’ exercise of self-government allows them to forge their own futures. With each passing year, Congress enacts new legislation that gives tribes the tools and resources to protect their citizens, create jobs and economic opportunities, and provide health care, housing, and other essential government services to their tribal communities and non-Indian neighbors.

For example, the 2013 Violence Against Women Act reauthorization enabled tribes to prosecute non-Indians for certain domestic violence crimes, helping close an enforcement gap that’s contributed to alarming rates of violence against Native women. And the Stafford Act amendment of 2012 allowed tribes to request presidential emergency declarations and federal resources in the event of natural disasters or public health emergencies.

These positive steps have benefited the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the rest of the country and their surrounding communities, but have not benefited communities in Maine. Why? Because in 1980, Congress passed the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA). The act resolved questions surrounding the taking of Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot lands in the 18th and 19th centuries by extinguishing our tribes’ land claims to non-reservation lands in Maine in exchange for trust funds to purchase land (although Passamaquoddy nor Penobscot have been able to obtain the acreage promised under MICSA).

But the act went further and blocked federal laws that benefit Indians from applying to tribes in Maine if the federal law would affect the application of state law. For the past 40 years, this provision has denied our tribes and Maine communities the same benefits of federal laws that are enjoyed by 570 tribes and their neighbors across the country.  

For example, in 2014, the Passamaquoddy Tribe relied on a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to recruit two pharmacists for the Pleasant Point Health Center that were licensed in a state other than Maine. The ACA amended and reauthorized a longstanding federal law, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), to allow tribes to employ medical professionals who are licensed in another state. Because the hiring of the pharmacists would “affect” state licensing requirements, Maine asserted the settlement act to attempt to block the Passamaquoddy from taking advantage of that IHCIA provision.

Bringing these pharmacists to the reservation would have not only helped the tribe, but also its non-tribal neighbors by easing the strain on non-tribal healthcare service providers in Washington County. This is one of many ways that MICSA has blocked good benefits for our communities and our non-tribal neighbors.

For the first time, we have an opportunity to begin to fix this disparity at the national level. We have been working with Rep. Jared Golden on legislation to change the law and start to put the Wabanaki tribes — our tribes — on a more level playing field with every other federally recognized tribe in the country. The congressman is introducing the product of our work together, the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, this week, and Rep. Chellie Pingree is joining on as a cosponsor.

This legislation would ensure that any federal law enacted in the future for the benefit of Indian tribes would apply in Maine. Moving forward, this would put us on a more equal footing with other tribes across the country.

This approach is deliberately narrow. It doesn’t go back and change the application of laws that are already on the books, some of which have been the source of litigation with the state. It only looks to the future and to new acts of Congress intended to benefit Indian tribes. While we aspire to full sovereignty on par with the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the country, our hope is that this legislation takes a modest but important step forward and demonstrates to the people of Maine and to the Maine Legislature that the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act in 1980 was never meant to be, and is not, the final word. We can move forward in a productive way.

As leaders of tribal nations, we seek to address many of the same issues that rural communities face across the state: supporting good jobs and creating new ones through economic development, protecting the health and safety of families in our communities, and building a bright future for our children.

We look forward to the day when we can spend less of our time wrangling over whether MICSA denies us the right to solve these problems, and more time actually solving them. That’s what self-determination is all about. Golden’s bill would be a meaningful step toward letting us do that.