‘The civil rights issue of our era’: Tribal sovereignty bill advances to full legislature / by Dan Neumann

Photo: Supporters of tribal sovereignty. | Beacon

The Maine State Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted to advance a bill on Tuesday afternoon that would restore to the Wabanaki Nations in Maine the same rights that other federally recognized tribes in the U.S. have. 

Prior to the roll call, several Democrats on the committee spoke to their colleagues about the significance of their vote.

“I think this is the civil rights issue of our era in Maine,” said Sen. Heather Sanborn (D-Portland). 

“Oftentimes people ask me what was the most important thing I did this year in the legislature. I have trouble saying,” said Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt (D-South Portland), who will soon finish her third term in the Maine House. “If we pass 1626 to the floor, and by some miraculous circumstance it passes, it will be the most important thing I have done, not just this year, but my entire service in the legislature.”

LD 1626 is one of the highest profile bills that is being considered this session. The legislation would make a host of sweeping changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which left the Wabanaki Nations with less authority over natural resources, gaming, taxation and criminal justice than 570 federally recognized tribes have.

Supporters speak to lawmakers about their support for LD 1626 and a slate of bills that reinforce tribal sovereignty on March 9. | Beacon

The Judiciary Committee voted 8-6 mainly along party lines to advance LD 1626 to a floor vote in the House. All Republicans on the committee voted against the measure, along with Democratic Rep. Christopher Babbidge of Kennebunk who said he would support an amended version of the bill that removed all the gaming provisions.

The bill is years in the making and has stemmed from commissions, the most recent a 2020 taskforce, that have studied the economic and political consequences of the Settlement Act. The bill, sponsored by House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), would adopt most of the 22 recommendations made by the 2020 taskforce.

The bill is supported by the Democratic leadership in the legislature, but Gov. Janet Mills is opposed to the legislation as drafted. The governor has floated a far narrower compromise, LD 585, which would grant tribes control of a mobile sports betting market, along with tax benefits and a process to consult with policies that affect them.

Mills vetoed a bill allowing tribal gaming last year and advocates and tribal leaders fear she may decide to veto LD 1626. It would take a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override the governor’s veto.

A Mills veto may be prove to be an unpopular decision as there has been an outpouring of public support for recognizing tribal sovereignty in Maine.

In a marathon public hearing before the Judiciary Committee last month, tribal citizens, backed by about a hundred Maine residents, testified in favor of LD 1626. More than 1,200 people submitted written testimony.

Last week, around 100 allies and advocates filled the halls of the State House, joining Wabanaki leaders to urge the legislature to pass LD 1626 along with 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.

Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation ambassador, said the purpose was to show the depth of support for tribal sovereignty.

“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. 

Photo: Supporters of tribal sovereignty. | Beacon

Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan@mainebeacon.com.

Beacon, March 15, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/the-civil-rights-issue-of-our-era-tribal-sovereignty-bill-advances-to-full-legislature/