Tribal sovereignty supporters fill State House, urge lawmakers to recognize Wabanaki rights / by Evan Popp

Around 100 allies and advocates filled the halls of the State House on Wednesday, joining Wabanaki leaders to urge the legislature to pass a slate of bills that would reinforce tribal sovereignty and treat Indigenous nations in Maine like other tribes around the country. 

The day of action was organized by the Wabanaki Alliance, a group pushing for the recognition of tribal sovereignty. At the State House, participants talked with lawmakers as they moved through the halls and asked them to support three bills currently under consideration. 

One of those bills, LD 1626, is perhaps the highest-profile measure this session and is part of a multi-year campaign by tribal leaders. As Beacon previously reported, that bill would alter the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which has left the Wabanaki Nations with less authority over natural resources, gaming, taxation and criminal justice than 570 other federally recognized tribes. 

The bill would change the Settlement Act to create “an enhanced process for tribal-state collaboration and consultation as well as a process for alternative dispute resolution.” Other aspects of the legislation include reforming the Settlement Act to strengthen tribal communities’ criminal jurisdiction, recognize the rights of tribes to regulate hunting and fishing on their lands, and affirm the Wabanaki’s right to regulate natural resources and land use on their territory. 

The bill, which received an avalanche of support from over 1,500 Mainers during a marathon public hearing in February, is currently opposed by Gov. Janet Mills.

Supporters of tribal sovereignty | Beacon

Along with LD 1626, advocates at Wednesday’s lobby day urged lawmakers to pass LD 906, another sovereignty measure that would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to address the unsafe and deteriorating water system at the Pleasant Point reservation, which has been a longstanding issue. The water at the reservation, which the state currently has a role in regulating, contains dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. There have also been myriad reports of itching and burning skin after showering and discolored and foul-smelling water coming from faucets. The Mills administration testified neither for nor against LD 906 during a public hearing last month. 

The final bill advocates talked with lawmakers about was LD 585, a measure that seeks to facilitate better tribal-state relations, implement tax benefits on tribal land and legalize and establish a regulatory framework for sports wagering on Wabanaki territory. Mills vetoed a bill that would have allowed more wide-ranging tribal gaming last year. LD 585, meant to facilitate economic development, is a compromise between the tribes and Mills. However, while Wabanaki leaders support the measure, they don’t view it as a substitute for reinforcing sovereignty. 

Wednesday’s lobby day comes as the three bills are moving through the legislative process. The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is holding work sessions on LD 1626 this week and is also considering the other two bills as well. 

‘It makes a difference’ 

Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation ambassador, said the purpose of Wednesday’s event was to talk about the slate of bills with lawmakers and show the depth of support for tribal sovereignty.

Dana said she was invited to address the Democratic caucus of the legislature Wednesday morning and received a warm welcome. She added that many lawmakers in the halls were open to hearing about and considering the tribal sovereignty bills.

Dana also said she was heartened by the amount of people who showed up at the State House, many of whom wore blue to signify their support.

“I think no matter how this all turns out, we’ve created a really historic movement and a whole lot of momentum behind these bills,” she said.  

Cheryl Golek, who is running in the Democratic primary for a House seat based in Harpswell, was one of the people who traveled to Augusta to make her voice heard. Golek said it’s crucial that legislators hear from their constituents, especially on issues as consequential as tribal sovereignty.  

“When we show up to support an issue that we’re passionate about and needs to be done, it makes a difference,” Golek said. 

Participants in Wednesday’s Wabanaki Alliance lobby day | Beacon

Participants in Wednesday’s Wabanaki Alliance lobby day | Beacon

Laura Sheinkopf of Belfast said she wanted to be part of the event for the chance to support Indigenous people in Maine and advocate for bills that will begin to right historical wrongs.

“This is a critical slate of bills that will set us on the path to restoring the relationship with Wabanaki people and with our environment, providing access to self governance and clean drinking water, to economic opportunity that the Wabanki deserve as federally recognized tribes and that Maine has denied them unjustly as a result of the Indian Settlement Act of 1980,” she said. 

Another volunteer, Eliot Van Peski of Swanville, said he had never done lobbying before he came to the State House in support of the Wabanaki Alliance bills. Van Peski said he showed up in solidarity with the tribes and their push to be treated like Indigenous nations around the country. 

Lucie Nolden, a volunteer lobbyist with Maine Youth Action who was also in Augusta to support tribal sovereignty, said she first heard about LD 1626 two years ago and has viewed it as critically important ever since, particularly since Maine exists on stolen land. If passed, Nolden said that bill and the others in the slate would be a start toward more just treatment of the tribes.

“I don’t have the most optimistic view of what’s going to happen in the coming years, but coming here and seeing hundreds of people wearing blue and supporting this bill, it makes me hopeful,” Nolden said of Wednesday’s event. “It feels like there’s a groundswell of popular support for change.” 

“All around Maine, people are starting to recognize that the way that it’s been for the past 200 years is unjust to the original inhabitants of this land, who are still here,” she added.  

Top photo: Participants in the Wednesday’s lobby day | Via Wabanaki Alliance 

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)mainebeacon.com.

Maine Beacon, March 9, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/tribal-sovereignty-supporters-fill-state-house-urge-lawmakers-to-recognize-wabanaki-rights/

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