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

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History was made at the State House last week, with chiefs from all five Wabanaki tribes giving a State of the Tribes address to a crowded legislative chamber.

Now, it is time for the tribes and the state to make a better future together.

The previous and only State of the Tribes address took place in 2002, and did not include a representative from all of the tribes. The March 16 address included Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, Chief Edward Peter Paul of the Mi’kmaq Nation, Chief William Nicholas Sr. of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk, Chief Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, and Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation.

A common theme from the chiefs was the years-long sovereignty effort to make sweeping changes to the 1980 settlement act that averted a major land claims dispute at the time but also led to decades of friction between the state and tribes.

“It’s time to modernize the agreement between state government and Maine tribes, because the current arrangement makes Maine Native Americans ‘outliers in Indian Country,’” Sabattis said.

“I look forward to forging a new path forward that is not only better for our tribe but also better for this great state that we all call home,” she continued.

“The Passamaquoddy Tribe is proud to be forging new positive bipartisan relationships in the Legislature and we look forward to working with our friends in both parties to improve economic development and the delivery of services in tribal and non-tribal rural communities in Maine,” Nicholas said.

“We want a relationship with the state government that is based on mutual trust, fidelity and respect,” Francis said. “A relationship that recognizes the unique contributions of the Wabanaki peoples to this State and promotes our self-determination without interference.”

“The Mi’kmaq Nation seeks to provide for our citizens what all sovereign nations and local communities provide for theirs,” Peter Paul said. “We seek to provide reliable community services for our citizens, to grow our local economy, and to provide jobs and positive cultural opportunities for our people. I am excited to see the state’s embrace of these objectives.”

Unfortunately, Gov. Janet Mills was not there to hear these messages in person. Her staff has said she had an unspecified scheduling conflict.

Mills’ attendance (or lack thereof), like the address itself, represented a more symbolic element of a very detailed and complicated conversation. But symbols mean something. The change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day meant something. The move to ban offensive Native American mascots in the state meant something. Symbolic changes can help build momentum for other progress, like the agreement to give tribes exclusive rights to online sports betting.

Last week’s address also meant something. And so did Mills’ absence. Whatever the reason, it was unfortunate that she was not there.

“The governor joins the Legislature in congratulating the tribal chiefs on a return to delivering a State of the Tribes Address, which is an important opportunity for the Wabanaki people to speak directly to the Legislature. Although the governor was grateful to receive an invitation to the Address, a scheduling conflict prevented her from attending,” Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman said this week in response to our questions about the governor’s absence, and about her invitation to meet with tribal leaders following the address.  

“However, as you know, the governor has invited tribal chiefs to meet with her in the Cabinet Room, and the chiefs have indicated their interest in meeting with the governor. She looks forward to meeting with them soon to continue the communication, collaboration, and compromise that formed the basis for progress in previous legislative sessions,” Goodman continued. “The governor cares for the health, welfare, opportunity, prosperity and future of the Wabanaki people, just as she cares for every person in Maine, and she is committed to working with the tribes and the Legislature to make progress on health, education, economic development and jurisdictional issues through deliberate and considered work that is grounded in mutual dialogue.”

Some incremental but concrete progress was made in the last legislative session, with Mills and the tribe finding agreement on some issues such as Passamaquoddy water access, online sports betting, tax relief and collaboration between the tribes and the state. Throughout this process over the past few years, we have encouraged policymakers to pursue areas of agreement and not let some of the more contentious areas of this broad debate stall everything. Based on a BDN report last week, it sounds like the bipartisan effort to craft a veto-proof tribal rights bill would take this pragmatic approach.  

“If we get a good bill out of this that corrects the things that were wrong about the 1980 settlement act, we don’t really see why there would be any opposition to it,” House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham told the BDN recently.

Lawmakers and tribal leaders should look for places to take positive steps forward together. We hope that these discussions and this needed progress will include the governor.

“Today is a sign that our momentum will only increase and, for this reason, I am excited for what the future holds for Wabanaki-state relations,” Newell, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, said in her remarks last Thursday.

We share her optimism. It will take sustained leadership from everyone involved, and a willingness to listen and learn, to turn that optimism into much-needed action. Last Thursday’s address made history; now it’s time to make a better future for everyone who calls Maine home.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...