Maine News: Advocates rally for tribal sovereignty as Mills signals opposition to long-sought reform / by Evan Popp

Around 100 people rallied in front of the State House on Wednesday to celebrate the progress that has been made this legislative session on recognizing the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki and to call on Gov. Janet Mills to sign multiple bills that would ensure the tribes are treated like other Indigenous nations around the country. 

The event featured speeches from members of the Wabanaki and lawmakers supportive of tribal sovereignty along with songs and dancing and a group of Indigenous people in a circle drumming together. 

Wednesday’s rally comes as the Wabanaki have secured big victories in the Maine Legislature on bills to reinforce their sovereignty. However, challenges lie ahead, as Mills has signaled that she may veto the most sweeping of those measures, LD 1626, which would reset a relationship with the state that Indigenous leaders have long argued is fraught with paternalism and unfair treatment.

“It’s up to her — she has an opportunity to change her mind and be a decent person,” said Darrell Newell, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, of Mills. He added, “We hope the governor will sign [these bills] into law. Maine will be a better place for it.”  

Significant victories for Wabanaki 

LD 1626, which would provide the Wabanaki with rights similar to those enjoyed by other tribes around the country, passed the legislature last week and is now awaiting funding approval from the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee before being sent to Mills’ desk. The bill would alter the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 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. Despite an unprecedented level of support for the bill, Mills has threatened to veto the legislation. 

Another priority bill that has passed the legislature this session is LD 906, a measure to address the unsafe and deteriorating water system at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation, known as Sipayik. Lawmakers passed that bill last week with strong bipartisan support. 

The measure was then recalled from Mills’ desk and an amendment was approved by both chambers that says the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s jurisdiction when it comes to drinking water does not extend beyond its territory and that the tribe can’t exercise jurisdiction over nonprofit public municipal corporations in enforcing ordinances related to drinking water. The bill was passed by both chambers and is now before Mills for consideration. 

A sign at the rally Wednesday | Beacon

A third bill, LD 585, 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. An amendment to the bill approved by the House and Senate clarified “any licensed casino is eligible to receive a facility sports wagering license” but that a commercial track in Bangor is not eligible. LD 585 is a compromise between Mills and the tribes. However, while supportive of the bill, the Wabanaki do not view it as a substitute for the sovereignty provided by LD 1626 and LD 906. 

Like LD 1626, LD 585 has also been passed by both chambers and is awaiting funding approval from the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee (AFA) before being sent to Mills’ desk. Lawmakers and proponents of tribal sovereignty expressed concern about the status of LD 1626 and LD 585 early Wednesday afternoon. With the legislature set to adjourn after Wednesday, advocates feared those bills could die before getting to Mills’ desk if there wasn’t enough time for AFA to approve funding for them. However, later Wednesday, both the House and the Senate passed an order to extend the legislative session, providing more time for the bills to be approved by AFA and sent to Mills.

‘Unprecedented support for tribal sovereignty’ 

The rally Wednesday featured a large number of speakers, including Passamaquody language and cultural teacher Dwayne Tomah, who noted the avalanche of support that the tribal sovereignty bills have received. Both LD 1626 and LD 906 had marathon public hearings, with a litany of people speaking in support of the bills. Over 1,500 people testified in favor of LD 1626 alone. Tomah also noted that many legislators have lined up behind the tribal sovereignty bills.

“Historically, this is unprecedented,” Tomah said. “It’s unprecedented the amount of support that we’re receiving from this building and also the amount of support we are receiving from the people of Maine. The people of Maine, their voices are being heard. This is a long time coming historically.” 

Multiple lawmakers also spoke at the rally. Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner) called on Mills to sign the tribal sovereignty measures, saying it is a matter of fairness and justice. 

“The time for words is over. It’s action that we need right now. It is all the words you have given us that resulted in these bills being put on the governor’s desk and the action we need is for them to be signed,” Harnett said. 

As Beacon previously reported, Mills, a Democrat, has used her veto authority to nix several legislative priorities popular within her party, including an attempt to close Long Creek youth prison and a bill that would have allowed voters to weigh in on replacing Maine’s two major investor-owned electric utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant, with a consumer-owned utility. Earlier this year, Mills drew national headlines for vetoing a bill that would have allowed farmworkers to unionize.

If LD 1626 is indeed vetoed, Sen. Rick Bennett, a Republican from Oxford County, said he hopes the legislature will override the governor, arguing that government must create laws that are right and morally just. 

“I want to express my hope, my sincere hope, particularly to the members of my own party who have opposed the initiative, that they will reconsider,” Bennett said.

Still, regardless of the ultimate outcome, Ernie Neptune, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, said getting the tribal sovereignty legislation passed through the legislature has been heartening and shows the power of persistence. 

“This legislative session has been monumental with regards to our sovereignty,” he said, adding “My brothers and sister: never give up. It is worth every bit of effort to fight for what you believe are your inherent rights.”   

Photo: Supporters of tribal sovereignty at the State House rally Wednesday | Beacon 

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

Beacon, April 21, 2022,