Clarissa Sabattis, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, foreground, and other leaders of Maine's tribes are welcomed by lawmakers into the House chamber, Wednesday, March 16, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Rena Newell, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, Edward Peter Paul, Chief of the Aroostook Band of Mi'kmaqs, and Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, follow behind. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s five tribal chiefs addressed lawmakers on Thursday for the first time since 2002, with one imploring them to support a sovereignty push by saying “our success is your success.”

The historic speeches came at a pivotal moment in the historically fraught relationship between Maine and the tribes. It is governed by a landmark 1980 land-claims settlement that effectively relegated the status of tribes to that of municipalities, lacking the sweeping rights that other U.S. tribes have over gaming, natural resources and other policy areas.

Gov. Janet Mills began her tenure by seeking reconciliation with the tribes, though she has resisted their major effort to overhaul the settlement. The sides agreed to a major 2022 compromise that granted a new mobile sports betting market and tax relief to the tribes, but their relationship with the governor has remained tense over the last few months.

Amuwes Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe participates in a drum circle at the Hall of Flags in the State House, Wednesday, March 16, 2023, in Augusta, Maine. The ceremony proceeded Maine tribal leaders delivering the first State Of The Tribes address in 20 years. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The Democratic governor did not attend Thursday’s address, with her office citing a scheduling conflict but saying Mills has offered to meet with tribes. Despite the governor’s past opposition, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland — who championed the return of the tribal address — is planning another legislative effort this year to overhaul the settlement.

The settlement was the major theme of Thursday’s tribal address, following a Harvard University study released in December that found Maine tribes saw economic growth of only 9 percent between 1989 and 2020 under the settlement, compared with 61 percent for non-Maine tribes.

“Our success is your success,” Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseets said.

Indigenous people have inhabited present-day Maine for more than 12,000 years. Diseases, wars and massacres — including one motivated by bounties ordered by Massachusetts’ colonial governor in 1755 — decimated native populations. Four Wabanaki tribes remain today, down from up to 30 before European contact.

Despite years of conflict, Maine’s tribal history is also rich with cooperation. The Maine tribes signed onto the Treaty of Watertown in 1776, marking the first recognition of American sovereignty after the Declaration of Independence. Native people fought with distinction in major wars, including 98-year-old Penobscot elder Charles Shay, who stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day in 1944.

Around that time, state politics was a hostile environment for tribes. A recently unearthed document from 1942 showed lawmakers conspiring to brush off millions of dollars in obligations to tribes and laying out goals of assimilation. Tribal members only won the right to vote in state elections in 1967, three years before a landmark federal shift toward tribal self-governance.

The settlement was a response to a massive Penobscot and Passamquoddy claim of two-thirds of Maine. The $80 million agreement gave the state the ability to object to federal laws around Indian policy, something that has kept many laws from applying to Maine tribes.

This has created a “chilling effect” with federal agencies and businesses that want to engage with the Penobscot Nation, Chief Kirk Francis said on Thursday.

“The Penobscot Nation is strong, but it could be stronger through partnerships,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District who broke with Mills by championing federal legislation last year that would have allowed tribes here to benefit from future federal laws, was at the event. Tribes blamed Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a former governor, for blocking the measure from being included in an end-of-year spending bill.

Mills was not mentioned in the chiefs’ speeches after her move last week to oppose a proposal that would print treaty obligations along with other parts of the Maine Constitution. Other top Democrats, including Attorney General Aaron Frey and Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, supported the bill.

The governor congratulated the chiefs on the address, Ben Goodman, her spokesperson, said, adding their work together and with lawmakers has “led to significant progress” for tribes. Mills’ office has also been in talks with Mi’kmaqs, who were left out of the 1980 settlement and are pushing for some changes of their own, Goodman said.

After the speech, Chief William Nicholas Sr. of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township said the governor “must have had a reason” for not being there, but he indicated hope that the tribes could reach an agreement on sovereignty that could get through the Legislature.

The address was bookended by musical performances by tribal members. House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, who has engaged with tribes on their priorities, called it “an amazing, historic day” in his chamber.

“I’m just proud to be a part of it,” he said.

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...