A group of singers from the Wabanaki Confederacy drum and sing before a news conference in support of the tribal sovereignty bills Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in front of the Maine State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Joe Phelan / BDN

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Kevin Hancock is the CEO of Hancock Lumber Company and a past member of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

My interest in the sovereign rights of indigenous communities began in 2012 when I first started traveling to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota. It’s a place I have now visited over two dozen times and I have lots of friends there today. Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and today it’s home to an amazing community of people who have preserved their tribal sovereignty despite well over a century of oppression and sustained efforts to eradicate their cultural identity.

Sovereignty, and the economic autonomy and a sense of ownership over the future that accompanies it, is a key feature of federally recognized tribes — one that confers respect, trust, responsibility, and opportunity.

In Maine, while the Wabanaki tribes have federal recognition, they do not enjoy the same type of sovereignty as indigenous nations like the Oglala Sioux and hundreds of other federally recognized tribes across the country. That is due to the unique laws that govern the relationship between the tribes in Maine and the state: the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) and the corresponding state implementing act. 

As many people know, MICSA was enacted in 1980 to resolve a complicated and historic land claims case brought forth by the tribes. Due to forces both practical and political, the parties to the lawsuit worked to find an agreement that could resolve those complex matters out of court. MICSA was a product of that negotiation, eliminating the tribes’ claims to land in exchange for a payment from the federal government. But the law also went beyond that, codifying a unique jurisdictional arrangement that treats the four tribes more like municipalities than sovereign political entities.

One relatively overlooked but meaningful provision included late in the bill’s drafting process has made it difficult for certain federal laws that Congress passes to benefit Indian tribes across the country to apply in Maine. While the provision did not attract significant attention at the time, it has resulted in a range of challenges to the Wabanaki tribes’ economic security – from blocking the Penobscot Nation’s ability to apply directly for federal disaster funds to preventing the Passamaquoddy Tribe from being able to use Affordable Care Act authorities to attract medical professionals.

With 40 years of hindsight, it’s now evident to many that constraints like these within MICSA have served as a roadblock to the Wabanaki tribes being able to realize greater prosperity and autonomy. I pass no judgment on the intent behind those who negotiated MICSA, but, as the times change, so should we. Even in today’s partisan climate, lawmakers regularly find ways to come together to update old laws to reflect the challenges of today. This law should not be shielded from that same type of rational scrutiny.

Fortunately, a targeted legislative effort is underway in Congress to open the door to ensure the future federal programs Congress creates to benefit federally recognized tribes across the country apply to the tribes in Maine. While this legislation, the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, would not touch the core features of MICSA’s design, it would ensure that going forward, new laws that Congress passes to benefit tribal nations would also apply to federally recognized tribes in Maine.

It’s my hope that our federal lawmakers will remember that they are entrusted with a special responsibility to federally recognized tribes and thereby support their economic sovereignty and right to self-government. Respecting the voice and wishes of tribal communities is the least we can do as we work to overcome a past in which indigenous tribes were denigrated and denied the most basic rights our country stands for. Federally recognized tribal sovereignty should not be withheld from Maine’s tribal communities. They deserve the same status as the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and all other tribes across the nation.