For the first time in nearly two decades, leaders from Maine’s indigenous tribes came to the Maine State House on Thursday to offer a “State of the Tribes” address.
Nearly every Maine state official was there, including Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland).
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, State Archivist Kate McBrien, State Auditor Matt Dunlap, and Attorney General Aaron Frey all showed up.
Two Maine Superior Court Justices, Rick E. Lawrence and Andrew M. Read, were in attendance.
U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (ME-CD2) was in attendance, and Sen. Angus King, Sen. Susan Collin, and Rep. Chellie Pingree sent representatives on their behalf.
But there was one conspicuous absence: Gov. Janet Mills.
Mills skipped the “State of the Tribes” ceremony on Thursday without providing a reason for her absence.
Given her fraught relationship with the tribes over tribal sovereignty negotiations, there are questions as to whether Mills’ absence was intended to send a message to tribal leadership.
That is, did Mills skip the ceremony to show the indigenous tribes where they really rank in Maine’s political pecking order? Was her absence a rebuke of the tribes, and of U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (ME-CD2), for trying to go around her with a federal bill?
More than one State House source described the governor’s absence Thursday as a “huge middle finger” to the tribes.
William “Billy” Nicholas, the chief of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Indian Township, said Mills originally said she was going to attend the event but cancelled a few days before without giving a reason.
“She didn’t give a reason, and I haven’t heard from her personally or professionally,” Nicholas said.
He said Mills typically communicates with him through staffers, but he never received any contact from her staff either about her skipping the event.
“It was a historic day. Attendance by the governor of Maine would of topped it off,” he said. “I think her presence was necessary, but she wasn’t there.”
Nicholas said he’s always attended events like State of the State addresses or inaugurations when he’s received invitations. Asked whether Mills was sending a signal about her position in ongoing negotiations over a tribal sovereignty bill, Nicholas said he hoped that wasn’t the case.
“I’m hoping that whatever she had going on, if it was personal or professional, that it wasn’t something she could get out of,” he said. “I don’t really know because a majority of the leadership from Maine, congressional leadership and others, were there. So I can only guess that it was something personal.”
“I don’t know if she had a medical appointment,” he said.
Mills did not respond to an email asking for a statement on her absence from the ceremony.
Maliseet Tribal Chief Clarissa Sabbatis, Chief Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, and Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation all joined Nicholas for the ceremony — the first time all four tribal chiefs have ever come together for an event.
Although the negotiations over tribal sovereignty legislation have at times been tense, the four chiefs who addressed Maine’s political leadership avoided acrimony and instead focused on telling the story of the Wabanaki tribes within the stories of America and Maine.
For example, Francis told the story of Chief Joseph Orono and other leaders traveling to Watertown, Mass., in 1775 to present grievances to the provincial government of Massachusetts, which at the time included Maine.
Orono was there to negotiate. In exchange for land around the Penobscot River and an end to the killing of his people by colonists, Orono committed his men to fighting alongside Americans in the Revolutionary War.
“Since the American Revolution, Penobscot people have fought in every military conflict,” Francis said.
But the chiefs were also clear about their desire to achieve the same benefits other tribes have received from the federal government under legislation spearheaded by former President Richard Nixon.
Federal law entitles Native American tribal organizations to certain federal assistance, but a law enacted by Maine in the 1980s, and ratified by Congress, make state government a kind of middleman between the tribes and Washington, D.C.
Maine has been an outlier in this regard, and state leaders have often thwarted tribal decision making. While the tribes would like to be treated like every other tribe and deal directly with the federal government, the Mills administration has fought to maintain the state’s middleman status.
Francis said the tribes are seeking the right of self-determination and inclusion in federal laws and programs that benefit other Native American tribes.
“The federal policy of self-determination has been reaffirmed by almost every president since Nixon,” he said. “Yet in Maine we are stuck in 1980s policy, and the tribes have had to commit significant resources towards trying to advocate on a case by case basis to be included in federal laws that are passed and are supposed to apply to us.”
“We are capable of self-governance, and should be treated as partners rather than threats to the future of the state,” said Francis.
The last time Maine’s Native American tribes gathered in Augusta for a State of the Tribes ceremony was March 11, 2002.
Legislative documents show that Speaker Ross and President Jackson invited Mills to Thursday’s ceremony more than two weeks ago on March 1.
12 days later she sent a letter saying she would be “unable to attend the address.”
“We have different histories, but today we call this beautiful place we know as Maine our home,” she said in the letter.
“I look forward to the ongoing discussions between my Administration, the Wabanaki people, and the State Legislature,” she said.
The letter doesn’t offer an explanation for her absence.
TRIBAL SOVEREIGNTY NEGOTIATIONS
As part of the ceremony, a bipartisan group of lawmakers passed a joint resolution recognizing the inherent dignity and historic legacy in Maine of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Mi’kmaq Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk, and Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, and the Penobscot Nation.
But the chiefs are looking for more than happy feelings from Augusta.
At issue are the provisions of two laws, one state and one federal, that attempted to resolve indigenous land claims against American governments once and for all. In the 1970s, the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy had laid claimed to nearly two-thirds of the entire state. Those laws settled the land claims, and they have controlled the relationships between the tribes, the state of Maine, and Washington, D.C., ever since 1980.
The Maine law — the Maine Implementing Act (MIA) — subjected the tribes to all of the laws of Maine as part of a negotiation between the state and the tribes, while the federal law — the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 (MICSA) — ratified the MIA and created a trust fund to purchase land for the tribes. The federal law aimed to “finally extinguish” any aboriginal land claims the tribes had against American governments by giving them a large pot of money they could use to acquire land, in addition to reservation lands already under tribal control, in Maine. Importantly, MIA and MICSA created the unique status for Maine’s tribes that excludes them from certain federal laws.
When the issue of indigenous claims came before the State Legislature last year, more than 1,500 people came out to testify on a version of the tribal sovereignty bill, mostly in favor of it. The whole panoply of left-wing pressure groups — even the teachers union, environmental groups, and LGBTQ activists — expressed support. But Mills remained lukewarm to the proposal, and many Republicans also didn’t get on board.
At the same time negotiations were happening in Augusta, the Mills administration was aggressively opposing a federal bill from Rep. Jared Golden (ME-CD2) that would have amended MICSA without including the state in the negotiations. Mills didn’t like being cut out of the equation.
In testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on the Indigenous Peoples of the United States, Mills’ chief counsel Gerald Reid made it clear Mills would have nothing of it. As counterparty to the original MICSA, Reid said, Maine (a.k.a. Mills) expected to be consulted on any amendment.
“The Mills Administration was not consulted in the development or drafting of H.R. 6707, and we learned about the bill only shortly before it was printed in the House,” said Reid.
In addition to settling land claims, MICSA also prevented some federal laws from applying to Maine’s tribes in the same way they apply to other federally recognized tribes when they would “affect or preempt” Maine’s jurisdiction.
That means Maine’s tribes, unlike every other states’ tribes, are treated differently under federal law. That different treatment is something the Mills administration is fighting to maintain.
Reid told Members of Congress that confusion and ambiguity over which federal laws would apply to Maine’s tribes, and when, would spawn confusion and litigation and untold chaos. Rather than blanket extension of federal law to Maine’s tribes, the Mills administration told Members of Congress each federal law should be decided on a case-by-case basis, something that would maximize the Mills’ control over the tribes. Mills objections to H.R. 6707, as expressed by Reid, at times seem more personal than substantive.
Golden, who was thanked specifically by tribal officials on Thursday, successfully managed to have the bill included in package of amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is typically must-pass legislation. Had the bill passed, Golden would have successfully gone around Mills to secure a major victory for the tribes. However, Sen. Angus King, a close political ally of Mills, later stripped the amendment out of the larger bill before it passed.
Back in Maine, lawmakers never sent Mills a final version of the state bill, in part because Mills asked them not to.
“I do not wish to have a confrontation over LD 1626,” Mills told tribal leaders.
That was a signal to legislative leaders that Mills would prefer not to pull out the veto pen, and the message was received. Lawmakers acquiesced to Mills’ desires, and the bill died when the legislature adjourned in May. Mills did sign a more limited bill that gave the tribes control over online sports betting in Maine and some tax exemptions, but tribal leaders were clear at the time that the limited provisions of LD 585 were not a replacement for LD 1626.
The state-level negotiations have boiled down to what parts of the Maine Implementing Act (MIA) to keep and what to amend.
In those negotiations, Republicans have objected to specific requests from the tribes.
For example, Republicans could not support continuing to treat the tribes like municipalities, including by providing revenue sharing, if they’re going to be fully sovereign.
But people familiar with the negotiations who spoke anonymously with the Maine Wire in order to speak honestly said Mills’ precise objections have never been clearly articulated, something which is apparent in Reid’s federal testimony, in which he specifically says the Mills administration just didn’t like being cut out of the equation.
Two people said her opposition to the tribal sovereignty bill was personal and that many lawmakers from Mills’ generation also opposed the bill.
The sense is that those who were around when the original 1980 law was passed are reluctant to support changing it, as changing now would imply the state got it wrong 43 years ago.
Mills was an Assistant Attorney General from 1976 to 1980, so she may have had familiarity with the original state and federal laws. If so, she hasn’t said.
But Mills may have protested a little too much in a statement to media on the eve of the tribal sovereignty bill’s demise:
“I recognize the Tribes’ desire to see LD 1626 become law,” said Mills, “just as I hope that the Tribes and lawmakers recognize that my concerns about the legislation are based in policy – and are not personal…”
SOVEREIGNTY AND ECONOMIC FREEDOM
Chief Nicholas said he’s narrowly focused on achieving full sovereignty for the tribes and the economic freedom that it would entail.
“The only bill that is necessary is one that addresses tribal sovereignty, on reservation, within our trustlands. Period,” said Nicholas. “The recognition of our tribal sovereignty, which was intact prior to the 1980 [MICSA]. That doesn’t take any land from anybody.”
“It doesn’t ask for any money. It recognizes the sovereignty of the Wabanaki tribes in Maine within their respective territories — tribal sovereignty to be able to function as a sovereign. Not limited sovereignty,” he said,
“That’d be the only bill I’d ever be interested in,” he said. “Everything can be negotiated within that bill.”
For Nicholas one of the biggest benefits of sovereignty would be economic freedom. Specifically, freedom from regulatory red tape and regulations that prevent the tribe from starting businesses, securing investments, and growing their local economy.
Under the current law, the tribe has tremendous difficulty securing investments for economic development, he said, because the law stipulates that banks cannot foreclose on trust land.
That means every bank considers it too risky to give a business loan to someone who wants to build on the reservation.
“We can’t just go get a loan from a bank to build a gas station on reservation because Citgo and Exxon or whoever might be, they can’t foreclose on trust land property or reservation,” he said. “So we have to front money to do these types of things, whether it’s a grocery store, whether it’s a gas station, or a huge economic development project.”
There are other areas where the existing laws also limit economic growth on tribal lands, like some of their gaming businesses, including high stakes bingo.
“If those restrictions were gone, we could add to our gaming facility there and be able to keep that as high stakes bingo with limited gaming opportunities that would provide more jobs in Washington County, but we can’t do it because the state stops us,” he said.
“There’s too many restrictions to get capital because of the Settlement Act,” he said.
“On reservation and in trust lands, we would be able to do economic development projects that we’re restricted from right now that would bring in the revenue,” he said.
Nicholas couldn’t say why Mills has been so adamantly opposed to extending the tribes full sovereignty and economic freedom.
“It’s ironic because the majority of the people on every reservation vote for Governor Mills,” said Nicholas, who is a registered Republican. “They may not like all the decisions that get made, but they predominantly vote Democrat.”
“I don’t usually attend many Zoom calls with the governor, only because you kinda know the answer,” he said.
“I just hope that in this legislative session — and for whatever reason why she wasn’t there today — that we continue to work closely to unify, and unite, and maybe have a meeting soon to get on the same page with what works.”