Supporters attend a rally in support of Wabanaki tribal sovereignty in 2022. | Beacon
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on March 9, 2023
A researcher from Harvard Kennedy School presented data to the Maine State Legislature showing that the state’s restrictions on the Wabanaki Nations’ self-determination has hobbled the tribes’ economic development.
“[The Wabanki tribes] are far underperforming the average and, in fact, are at the bottom of the barrel economically,” Professor Joseph Kalt, head of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, said from the floor of the Maine House on Thursday. “The fact that they’re not only all doing relatively poorly but very close to the bottom is telling you something important.”
As Beacon previously reported, Kalt and a research team released a study in December that found that while economic growth in Indian Country has boomed since the start of genuine tribal self-government in the late 1980s, Wabanaki Nations have been left out of this progress.
Average per capita incomes among the 9,546 citizens of the Wabanaki Nations in Maine — Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot — has only increased by 9% since 1980, compared to 61% for members of the tribal reservations outside of Maine. The average Maine income grew 25% during the same period.
Kalt also said that employment numbers among all four Wabanaki Nations is only about one-quarter that of similarly sized tribes. And rates of child poverty are far higher among the Wabanki tribes. The average rate is 40.2% at Passamaquoddy’s Indian Township and 76.9% for children in Mi’kmaq Nation, while 15.1% for the rest of the state.
Kalt indicated that these disparities are largely the result of the restrictions of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 (MICSA), which has excluded the tribes from rights and protections created through federal law since its passage over 40 years ago.
“What do each one of these tribes share?” Kalt asked lawmakers. “What they share is MICSA, which allows the state of Maine either actually or potentially to block the application of federal policies adopted since 1980, which is the era of self-government.”
Kalt’s research focused 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 across the country over the last three decades, Kalt stressed that self-determination facilitated tribal expansion into diversified industries. That has been key to their economic development.
“It’s not just casinos,” he said. “It’s self governance that has resulted in diversified economies in Indian Country.”
Kalt further explained that if the 1980 Settlement Act were amended and the Wabanaki tribes rose to the national average, Maine could expect to see an increase of $320 million to the state’s GDP.
A multi-year legislative effort to overhaul the Settlement Act died in the legislature’s budget-making committee last 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. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills opposed the legislation, as did Attorney General Aaron Frey, and instead passed a compromise that will allow the tribes exclusive control of online sports betting markets.
At the federal level, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden sponsored a bill that would have allowed the Wabanaki access to all future federal legislation passed on behalf of tribes. That legislation died in December when it was not included in a congressional budget deal due to opposition from Sen. Angus King, an independent, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins.
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), the sponsor of the previous tribal sovereignty bill, has submitted new legislation this session, although it remains to be seen exactly what that measure will contain.
As the Wabanaki continue their campaign for self-determination, Kalt said that sovereignty has produced multiple benefits for tribes beyond the economic realm.
“What’s happening in these communities under self-government is they’re starting to see recovery of language, recovery of culture. What’s happening?” he asked lawmakers. “Well, everybody knows when you read about what causes suicide, it is a lack of a sense of agency. Your life seems out of your control. What self-determination and self-governance has done for tribes is start to turn things around. What self-determination restores is a sense of agency, a sense of control, and it produces more and more success stories.”
In a statement after the presentation, Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation and president of the Wabanaki Alliance, said Kalt offered persuasive evidence that policies encouraging tribal self-determination have been “an amazing success story” among tribal communities across the country, including many that are located in rural areas.
“Maine is the outlier, and, as Dr. Kalt showed lawmakers today, it’s due to the obstacles MICSA places on the Wabanaki Nations,” Dana said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. A better story than the one we’ve seen over the past 40 years is possible.”
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.