Originally published in the Maine Beacon on December 8, 2022
A new report from Harvard University finds that the state of Maine’s unique control over the Wabanaki Nations has significantly stifled their economic development.
The report indicates that this is largely the result of the restrictions of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which limits the tribes’ ability to exercise self-governance over their own affairs.
The tribes are unique among the 574 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. due to the Settlement Act, which has excluded the tribes from rights and protections created through federal law since its passage 40 years ago.
“Today, all four of the tribes in Maine — Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot — are stark economic underperformers relative to the other tribes in the Lower 48 states,” reads the December 2022 research report authored by Joseph Kalt, Amy Besaw Medford and Jonathan Taylor for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.
Wabanaki economic growth not keeping up with other tribes
Since 1989, the researchers found, the income for the average resident of a reservation outside of Maine has increased by more than 61%. But for members of the Wabanaki Nations, average per capita income has only increased by 9% during the same period, while the rest of Maine saw a 25% increase.
The researchers further found that the tribes are significantly underdeveloped economically compared to the rest of Maine.
Houlton band of Maliseet and Mi’kmaq Nation citizens have the lowest average annual per capita income of the Maine demographic studied at $11,320 and $11,431, respectively. Citizens of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s two reservations, Indian Township and Pleasant Point, have annual incomes of $14,435 and $13,741. And Penobscot Nation citizens have the highest per capita income of the Wabanaki Nations at $18,809. Yet Maine’s per capita income is nearly double that at $34,593.
And while Maine’s five-year average child poverty rate is 15.1%, the rate is 40.2% at Passamaquoddy’s Indian Township and 76.9% for children in Mi’kmaq Nation.
A multi-year legislative effort to overhaul the 1980 Settlement Act died in the legislature’s budget-making committee earlier this year. The reforms, pushed for by the tribes and their allies, would have altered tribal-state relations on matters from taxation to gambling to wildlife management. Gov. Janet Mills opposed the legislation, as did Attorney General Aaron Frey, instead signing into a law a compromise that her office brokered that will allow the tribes exclusive control of online sports betting markets.
At the federal level, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden has sponsored legislation that would allow the Wabanaki access to all future federal legislation passed on behalf of tribes. Golden’s legislation has been opposed by members of the forest products industry.
Despite passing the U.S. House last summer, Golden’s bill appears to have stalled in the Senate, where Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, has said he opposes the bill. Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she has not taken a position on the measure.
The economic advantages of self-determination
The Harvard University researchers advocate for lifting the 1980 Settlement Act, arguing the economic growth associated with allowing the tribes to fully self-govern would spill over to surrounding communities and the state as a whole.
“The subjugation of the Wabanaki Nation’s self-governing capacities is blocking economic development to the detriment of both tribal and nontribal citizens, alike,” the report reads. “For the tribal citizens of Maine held down by [Settlement Act’s] restrictions, loosening or removing those restrictions offers them little in the way of downside risks and but much in the way of upside payoffs.”
The researchers further warn, “Against these upside prospects is a status quo in which all sides leave economic opportunities on the table and ongoing cycles of intergovernmental conflict, litigation, recrimination, and mistrust continue.”
The research focuses on the economic impacts of legislation that ushered in what tribal scholars call the “Self-Determination Era,” which began with the the 1975 passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act and continued with the 1989 signing of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which freed tribal governments to decide to operate gaming enterprises within tribal nations.
While gaming played a significant role in the economic growth in tribal communities over the last three decades, the researchers stress that the broader benefits of self-determination, not just gaming rights, was a key factor in the economic development.
“By the end of the 1980s, economic development in Indian Country began to take root as tribes built enterprises in, for example, ski tourism, light Defense Department manufacturing, forestry and wildlife management, livestock and crop agriculture and gaming,” the researchers explained, noting that by 1999, 47% of Indigenous people residing on reservations lived on reservations whose tribe did not own and operate a casino.
“Nonetheless,” the report reads, “those reservations experienced inflation-adjusted per capita income growth nearly three-fold greater than the U.S. did as a whole, compared to the slightly greater than three times performance of tribes with casinos.”
The report concludes, “For the tribal citizens of Maine, loosening or removing [the Settlement Act’s] restrictions offers few downside risks and many upside payoffs. There’s nowhere to go but up.”
Photo: Mainers hold signs supporting Wabanaki sovereignty at the State House earlier this year during a legislative campaign to amend the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. | 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.