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Maine tribal leaders and Gov. Janet Mills certainly have not agreed on everything in the legislative debate over tribal rights. That is clear with the governor’s continued opposition to LD 1626, the sweeping tribal sovereignty bill that now appears stalled in Augusta.
This lack of total agreement, however, should not diminish other important work done — nor derail work yet to do — to improve the tribal-state relationship. It must not.
In a recent statement from Wabanaki leaders, and in a letter Mills sent to both legislative and tribal leaders, we see reasons to be hopeful for additional and much-needed progress. There have been positive steps to build upon moving forward.
The lengthy tribal statement deserves to be read in its entirety, and is posted on the Wabanaki Alliance website. Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians Chief Clarissa Sabattis, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis, Mi’kmaq Nation Chief Charlie Peter Paul, William Nicholas, Sr. of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township and Elizabeth Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point authored the statement together.
They stressed that “permanent sovereignty restoration remains the legislative priority for the Wabanaki Nations,” and expressed disappointment that the governor and attorney general’s office continue to have concerns with the larger sovereignty bill. But they also highlighted the “level of support far beyond what any of us expected” received during the task force process that led to the bill. And they pointed to LD 906, a bill dealing with Passamaquoddy water rights, and LD 585, a compromise Mills’ office helped craft that would give the tribes control of the online portion of a new sports betting market, and also deals with tribal-state collaboration and tax relief.
“So, while we have made significant and concrete progress in moving the needle, there is still more work to be done. Time is on our side,” the tribal leaders said. “Our people have lived with the negative consequences of the settlement act for over 40 years. However, we have made more progress in our sovereignty restoration efforts in the past four years than we did in the previous several decades. We need to remember that we started this fight on the backs of our ancestors and those who came before us, and our goal has always been to make progress for the next seven generations that will come after us. Our fight for sovereignty restoration will not end today. We want the conversation to continue and we will press forward to engage more Mainers on these issues.”
Mills has already signed the Passamaquoddy water bill. Given that her office helped develop the compromise of LD 585, she certainly should sign that too.
“We sincerely appreciate the good faith dialogue and negotiations with the governor that resulted in these bills. Neither of those bills represent sovereignty for all Wabanaki Nations and people in Maine, but each does provide important benefits that will strengthen our respective communities,” the tribal leaders added. “We are going to continue to push for our sovereignty regardless of the outcome on LD 1626, and we acknowledge that this process now rests with state government and is out of our hands. Our ancestors made sacrifices so we could be here today, and it is our sacred duty to continue to press for full restoration and recognition of Wabanaki sovereignty. We look forward to continuing this work with all of our partners and allies.”
Mills struck a similar chord about continuing to work together at the end of her letter. She also indicated willingness to find agreement on federal legislation that would prevent Maine tribes from being excluded some future federal benefits, and pointed to other steps her administration, the Legislature and tribes have worked together on such as land transfer legislation, the creation Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the establishment of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.
“The progress we have made through LDs 906 and 585 – as well as the process we undertook to arrive at them – are a blueprint for the future,” Mills said. “They can and should represent the beginning of our work, not the end.”
This has not always been possible to say in the conversation about tribal-state relations, but we agree with both the tribal leaders and the governor. That in itself demonstrates progress. With these incremental steps made possible by patience and hard work, there is much more to accomplish.