Mi’kmaq Nation Chief Edward Peter-Paul speaks at the Bangor Daily News office on Jan. 30, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — While three bigger tribes press Maine lawmakers on a sweeping expansion of their rights, a smaller one is restarting an effort to renegotiate its relationship with the state that could be just as complicated as the higher-profile one.

The Mi’kmaq Nation, formerly known as the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, has been treated differently than other tribes in recent agreements with the state. In a 1980 land-claims settlement agreement with the state, the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy tribes and the Houlton Band of Maliseet got a combined $81.5 million in exchange for being effectively governed like Maine municipalities. Those tribes are fighting to overhaul that agreement now.

The Mi’kmaq won federal recognition in 1989 after a state law led to Congress approving Maine’s own agreement with the tribe, granting the tribe $900,000 to buy land. But the tribe never ratified a state agreement. Since then, courts have applied the earlier settlement to the Mi’kmaq. It tried to bargain with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2016 to no avail.

The Mi’kmaq has now hired a well-known Maine tribal lawyer to try again, with Chief Edward Peter-Paul saying his people want a full set of rights being requested by the other tribes now. But Gov. Janet Mills has resisted that larger effort in favor of a smaller list of concessions. The smaller tribe may have to scale back its ambitions to get anything.

“We want to be friends with the state,” Peter-Paul said. “We’ve been an ideal tribe, I guess, and it’s time for us to get what we deserve.”

The tribe’s council authorized the chief to approach Mills about reopening negotiations last month, said Michael-Corey Hinton, a Passamaquoddy lawyer representing the Mi’kmaq. The parties met with members of the governor’s office a few weeks ago for an initial discussion.

“There is a lot of rolling up of sleeves to be done,” he said.

The Mi’kmaq situation stems from a series of complicated events. Before it was federally recognized in 1989, the tribe numbered about 400 people. Legislative materials from that time said members lived in poverty scattered throughout Aroostook County. The tribe counted 285 members on recognized land in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Through the 1960s and most of the 1970s, the chief advocacy group for the Mi’kmaq was the Association of Aroostook Indians, which also included Maliseets, who increasingly dominated it. When federal funds became available to research historical claims, the association focused on the Maliseets, according to documents. That left the Mi’kmaq out of the 1980 agreement.

Later research found the traditional Mi’kmaq land stretched from eastern and northern Maine into Canada. But there was doubt in 1989 that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs would recognize the tribe based on its criteria for recognizing indigenous people, such as ancestral connection with one of the Micmac Canadian bands, said Mi’kmaq Vice Chief Richard Silliboy.

So supporters went to the Legislature. The bill was supported by then-Attorney General James Tierney and championed by Nan Heald, a legal advocate for the poor who died this year. A May 1989 Kennebec Journal article notes the bill moved through Augusta without opposition.

“We didn’t want to follow their path and jump through their little hoops,” Silliboy, then the tribe’s administrator, said of the federal bureau.

The Mi’kmaq never formally ratified the state agreement, a fact still noted in law. That formed the basis of a lawsuit in which the tribe resisted following state employment laws, saying federal law prevented the tribe from needing to comply. A federal appeals court ultimately disagreed in 2005, finding terms of the 1980 agreement applied to the tribe.

Where talks go from here is uncertain. Negotiations are preliminary and unlikely to pick up until the end of the 2022 legislative session with Mills, a Democrat, up for reelection in November against former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said the governor welcomes discussions on how to make Mi’kmaq lives better.

The end result could take different forms, Hinton said. The tribe would like to have jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters and hunting and fishing on their land. It could be brokered in a legal agreement with the state or come in the form of a bill.

But the political situation in Maine is difficult for this tribe and others. Their supporters are waiting to see how the Legislature moves forward on a larger tribal-rights package. Whatever wins out might be a model for the Mi’kmaq to work with, Hinton said.

“The nation is going to have to decide for itself what issues it wants to negotiate for itself,” he said.