Since 1989, U.S. tribes have seen per-capita incomes rise 61 percent, while the Wabanaki have seen only a 9 percent increase.
In this Jan. 30, 2020, file photo, Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation speaks at the Bangor Daily News office. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The four federally recognized tribes in Maine are deprived of the same opportunities for economic growth their counterparts everywhere else have because of a 42-year-old legal arrangement that applies only to them and limits their self-governance.

Not only do the tribes lose out as a result of the arrangement, but the areas around Maine’s tribal communities do as well.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that focuses on the terms of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which applies to the four Wabanaki nations in Maine — the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot.

No other tribes in the U.S. are subject to the same arrangement. Under the 1980 legislation, the tribes received millions of dollars and land, but their governments are treated largely as municipalities, whereas other tribes throughout the U.S. are recognized as sovereign nations.

As a result, the Wabanaki nations have been excluded from the benefits of more than 150 federal policies that have taken effect since the 1970s that have expanded tribes’ self-governing rights and funding. That funding has opened a door for tribal governments to put the revenue back into their communities, spurring economic development. 

The report calls the Wabanaki nations “stark economic underperformers” compared with tribes elsewhere throughout the continental U.S. Since 1989, according to the report, U.S. tribal nations have seen per-capita incomes rise 61 percent when adjusted for inflation, while the Wabanaki nations have seen only a 9 percent increase.

The report largely makes the case for a bill pending in Congress sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden from Maine’s 2nd District that would loosen some of the restrictions of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. It would make any future federal laws applying to tribes also apply to the Wabanaki tribes unless they’re expressly written out of the legislation. 

It would allow the Wabanaki tribes to gain control over their own affairs, improve state-tribal relations and help tribes in Maine advance economically, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said. The legislation would also break the pattern of tribes from Maine fighting to be included retroactively in federal policies that have helped other tribes.

“This is about setting a path forward so that 40 years from now we’re not having the same conversation about the tribes’ plight compared to everyone else,” Francis said. “The reason those disparities exist, whether it’s household income or educational outcomes, is because the tribes have been locked in the 1980s.” 

Passing the bill would be “an unambiguous positive” for Mainers, both tribal citizens and those who aren’t, said Joe Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, which released the report.

“Maine is not made better by holding down the economic development and strengthening of its Wabanaki nations,” said Kalt, who is also a professor emeritus at the Kennedy School. “None of us are wealthier when our neighbors are poor.”

The Wabanaki Alliance, a group formed by the Wabanaki tribes to advocate for tribal sovereignty, funded the Harvard research and report.

Rural areas in the U.S. have been able to benefit when the tribal communities near them have been able to provide public services, such as health clinics, that anyone can access, Kalt said.

“In rural areas in the U.S., we’re seeing more tribes become the No. 1 employers, the provision of health clinics, and the co-founders of police departments and other social services that have been hollowed out by economic decline in rural America,” he said. 

Aside from economic development, Kalt said, giving tribes the ability to make decisions for themselves — even small decisions like setting speed limits — gives people back their autonomy. That change can also directly affect mental health in those communities. 

Francis said he’s pleased the Harvard report shows why the pending bill is needed, and he’s hopeful it will continue to gain traction. However, he’s disheartened by opposition from U.S. Sen. Angus King and Gov. Janet Mills, who has lobbied against the measure.

Mills’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Any significant change should result from negotiations between the tribes and the state,” King said.

While the bill could help tribes in Maine, Francis said no single law will solve the problems tribes in the state face.

“Congress is continuously working to strengthen the self-determination of tribes, and we just want to be part of that,” Francis said.

Avatar photo

Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...