In this April 11, 2022, file photo, protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House in Augusta. Credit: David Sharp / AP

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Kathleen Dunn is a senior at the University of Maine studying history and sociology. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of any group with which she is affiliated.

The Wabanaki people, our neighbors and fellow Mainers too often are denied the right to be active participants in decisions affecting their land and people. LD 1626, which remains before the Maine Legislature, would be an important step towards Wabanaki self-governance and a fair relationship between tribes and the state.

Since 1980, the Wabanaki Confederacy has lived under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the Maine Implementing Act. These acts have severely curtailed the self-governance of Maine tribes by treating them like municipalities. The acts reduce the Wabanaki people, I believe, to second-class citizens on their own land while Maine benefits. LD 1626 would correct this inequality and place Maine tribes on equal footing with the rest of the federally recognized tribes in the United States by recognizing their inherent right to sovereignty and self-governance.

The Mills administration has expressed concern about the potentially wide-reaching nature of LD 1626. I argue, however, that broad structural change is exactly what the Wabanaki people and Maine need.

A 2012 letter by the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission stated that “the Acts have created structural inequities that have resulted in conditions that have risen to the level of human rights violations.” These conclusions were echoed by James Anaya, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, who cited poverty, unemployment and low life expectancy, among others, as major human rights violations stemming in large part from the acts.

The settlement acts prevent Maine tribes from accessing federal benefits, denying them  critical tools to support their members. Just a few of these include job development programs, vocational training, education resources, water infrastructure protections, addiction treatment programs, protections for Native children in foster care and the expansion of tourism opportunities. The benefits of these programs, it ought to be noted, are not limited to tribal citizens. The prosperity of Native reservations can act as a “rising tide” for neighboring Maine communities.

Tribal communities have suffered for too long under the Maine settlement acts, and it is time to remedy that. Humanitarian crises require decisive action, not half-steps.

LD 1626 will not be a cure-all for the problems facing the Wabanaki people, but it can be an important step forward. This is an opportunity for Maine to support members of our community and affirm our commitment to the ideals of self-determination and sovereignty. It is long past time for the Wabanaki people to have a real seat at the table, and I urge the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills to take this chance to right a devastating wrong.