Gov. Janet Mills (left) and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (right) of Maine's 1st District meet with members of the public in Portland to discuss how to respond to asylum seekers arriving in the city on June 14, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

Tension between Gov. Janet Mills and two of the state’s members of Congress echo the early parts of the decades-ago battle over the historic tribal settlement.

In a breakdown between Maine’s top elected Democrats, Mills sent a letter to members of Congress in an effort to work around members of the congressional delegation to get lawmakers to slow down a measure championed by Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree.

The measure would allow Maine tribes to automatically benefit from legislation helping tribes nationally going forward. They now have to be specifically written into laws. It boils down to the 1980 land-claims settlement that has been at the heart of a tribal sovereignty movement.

Mills has largely resisted more sweeping demands from tribes, although the parties inked a major compromise this year that will hand a new mobile sports betting business to the tribes. She is part of a long list of governors and other state officials who have tried to preserve Maine’s power in disputes with the tribes.

The settlement from more than four decades ago was the result of a massive tribal lawsuit against the state that called into question the ownership of two-thirds of modern-day Maine. The result was an $80 million settlement that mostly regulated tribes like cities and towns, an arrangement that they have come to regret.


The political battle over this settlement is not widely known nearly 50 years later. Key state officials never even wanted to move to a settlement in the 1970s, as Bates College professor Joseph Hall noted in a 2016 article.

Bull-headed independent Gov. James Longley complained that the state was being left out of negotiations, while Attorney General Joseph Brennan, a Democrat who later served as congressman and governor, opposed a settlement because he figured the state would win the court battle. Public sentiment against the settlement was high at the time.

Then-U.S. Sen. William Hathaway, the Democrat who ousted the legendary Margaret Chase Smith in 1972 and faced upstart Rep. William Cohen in a tough 1978 race, took on the moral cause of supporting the tribal claims and championing the settlement, an unpopular position that contributed to Cohen’s victory.

The powerful Sen. Edmund Muskie was more ambivalent, offering only tepid support of Hathaway’s position. He mostly sat out subsequent negotiations and was serving as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state by the time the deal was done in 1980.

While Mills has worked against the tribes at times, her openness to negotiations is a far cry from the tenor of 1970s politics in Maine and former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican running against her in 2022, had a more fraught relationship with the tribes. But the state’s position is proving to be far different than the congressional one in a parallel to that era. There is again a lot on the line for tribes who want to bring more federal support to their areas.

Mills is arguing that the state is getting cut out of a major issue affecting tribes here, while Golden sees the issue squarely as a congressional one. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins have not indicated stances so far and may have to soon. Golden’s position comes with some risk as he faces a tough re-election battle with former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, in the swing 2nd District. History echoes through the current tribal-rights landscape at every level.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...