Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant doesn't expect much progress will be made between the tribes and Gov. Janet Mills.
Supporters of an effort to override Maine Gov. Janet Mills' veto of a bill that would have expanded tribal rights fill the hallway in the State House on July 6, 2023, in Augusta. Credit: Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald via AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — If Maine’s Native American tribes are going to achieve their goal of receiving more federal benefits, it may take a new governor.

Maine’s four-member congressional delegation remains split on sovereignty, which stalled again after the Legislature voted earlier in July to uphold Mills’ veto of a bill that would have extended additional federal laws to the four Wabanaki tribes in the state.

While the governor favors including Congress in negotiations, tribes question her sincerity in seeking compromise, pointing to Mills lobbying last year against a federal bill that was similar to the vetoed legislation. It leaves no clear path forward in Augusta nor Washington. Both the tribes and big-name politicians in the governor’s party are starting to look past her.

“Sooner or later, there’s going to be a governor, maybe the next governor, who’s going to support tribal sovereignty for the Wabanaki,” U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents the 2nd District and sponsored the tribal-rights bill last year, said Wednesday.

The office of Mills, who is barred by term limits from running in the 2026 election, said it was “saddened” by Golden’s comments on the governor standing in the way, noting she signed three  other  bills this session to support tribal rights while recognizing concerns from towns in Golden’s district about amending the landmark 1980 settlement governing state-tribal relations.

“She continues to stand ready to negotiate with the Wabanaki Nations and others to make applicable the small handful of federal laws that do apply to the tribes in Maine,” Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman said.

The $81.5 million settlement for the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet, along with a separate 1991 agreement for the Mi’kmaq, led to tribes relinquishing a claim for more than two-thirds of the state’s land and becoming regulated essentially like cities and towns.

The nonprofit Native American Rights Fund said at the time it was “far and away the greatest Indian victory” in U.S. history. But the tribes now point to a Harvard University report they commissioned that found they’ve since lagged economically behind tribes in other states with access to federal laws not applicable in Maine, such as ones pertaining to disaster assistance and health care.

This year’s bill from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, had bipartisan support but was defeated when enough lawmakers flipped to instead uphold Mills’ veto.

The governor argued the bill was not “thoroughly vetted” and would lead to “years, if not decades, of painful litigation” for Maine and the tribes. Mills said she prefers working with the tribes and Congress on making sure federal laws apply to the Wabanaki in Maine.

But Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant said a one-by-one approach is “draining a lot of time and resources from these tribes,” pointing to negotiations that lasted nearly a decade to give Maine’s tribal courts jurisdiction over Violence Against Women Act cases involving their people and land.

In the rest of the U.S. where 570 tribes are covered by additional federal laws, Golden said “the sky is not falling.” Instead, he said other states and tribes are “vibrant and economically thriving.” That view is supported by the congressional delegation’s other Democrat.

“The tribes shouldn’t have to run back to the state for every one and say, ‘Hey, can we take advantage of this?’” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District said.

Golden and Pingree have been the most outspoken members of Maine’s delegation on this issue, while U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and was the governor from 1995 to 2003, helped prevent Golden’s bill last December from passing in the Senate as part of a $1.7 billion federal defense measure.

His office did not make him available for an interview, but said he has reached out to the tribes and held “constructive conversations with engaged Maine people and is sincerely working to reconcile the existing differences on these issues.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said all sides should continue dialogue and added she had not read Talbot Ross’ bill nor Mills’ veto letter and that she doesn’t typically take positions on state legislation. Additionally, she said tribes participate in many federal programs, such as a diabetes program for Indians that has given $5 million to Maine’s tribes to fight the disease.

“I am always interested in learning more about where the tribes feel they are not receiving federal tribal benefits,” she said.

Tribal officials, who gathered with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers Thursday in Freeport to celebrate that political alliance, indicated they will keep pushing to win over enough state lawmakers next year and beyond to improve their economic and social well-being.

Bryant, the Penobscot Nation’s ambassador, doesn’t expect much progress to be made between Mills and the tribes.

“We’ve tried both places,” she said in a reference to the state and federal efforts, “and you’ve stepped in and shut it down.”

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...