Maine House proposes plan to give state tribes sovereignty

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House voted Thursday to give the state’s tribes the same rights enjoyed by Native Americans elsewhere in the country, a first step in an effort to maintain tribal sovereignty.

The 81-55 tally marked the first legislative vote in the process of restoring rights lost in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which brought tribes under state law.

The vote, which tribal leaders watched from the podium, followed emotional testimony from supporters who said change was long overdue.

“Now is the time to change that, because the Wabanaki Tribes rightly deserve and should enjoy the same rights, privileges, powers and immunities as other federally recognized tribes,” said Rep. Rena Newell, a Passamaquoddy Rep. without the right to vote in the Legislative Assembly.

Some critics, however, pointed out that the change could lead to unforeseen difficulties. As it stands, tribal reservations in Maine are treated as municipalities under state law.

The historic vote came hours after the Senate gave final approval to a separate bill allowing the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Pleasant Point to regulate their own drinking water.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is concerned about parts of the bill, including jurisdictional clashes.

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, said she’s concerned that Maine’s tribal lands aren’t contiguous and there could be disputes over environmental rules in towns across the state. Future lawmakers will be bound by any errors in the new language, she said.

“There are serious unknown consequences on natural resources and wildlife management, access to land and water and liability,” she said.

Most lawmakers have talked about righting a historic wrong that goes back more than four decades.

The Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet ceded certain rights to state authority under an $81.5 million settlement signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. The Mi’kmaq are subject to similar terms under their own agreement, adopted in 1991.

In the years that followed, the state and tribes opposed environmental, fish and wildlife rules. And the state’s tribes did not benefit from changes to federal law, their supporters said.

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, Maine, became emotional as he spoke about the need to pass the law to ensure tribes are treated the same as others, especially everything they’ve endured since. the arrival of the Europeans who took the Native Americans. land and killed many of them.

“When we steal something of this magnitude, we have to give back a little to make it good,” he said.

Deputy House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said the proposal was the result of years of work.

“Throughout the history of Maine and the United States, we have changed our laws time and time again to right past wrongs, improve our democracy, and protect the rights of those who were previously left behind. May 2022 be the year we fix the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed to this report.

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