Comment: Maine still treats native tribes as second-class citizens.


Maine’s native tribes are second-class citizens. While 570 tribes across the country have access to beneficial laws passed by Congress, tribes in Maine have been barred from accessing many and must seek state permission to access others. Since the signing of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act in 1980, tribes have not benefited from dozens of federal laws designed to support public health, safety, and general socioeconomic issues of tribal communities.

A band from the Wabanaki Confederacy drums and sings April 20 before a news conference in support of tribal sovereignty bills facing the Maine Legislative Assembly in Augusta. The failure of the Legislative Assembly earlier this year to enact a bill recognizing Abenaki sovereignty makes it all the more urgent to pass federal legislation to the same end. Journal of Joe Phelan/Kennebec, file

Senator Angus King’s letter to voters regarding his position on HR 6707, the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, is disappointing and out of touch with what is fair and just.

The piecemeal approach of Maine tribes to lobbying Congress for benefits and protections has negative real-life consequences. For example, Maine finally passed the Violence Against Women Act in 2019, six years after it was passed by Congress. Should Maine tribal women have waited six years for equal protection? Having served on the Judiciary Committee during this six-year period, I have witnessed the embarrassing obstruction we have encountered in our attempts to enact this fundamental right.

Another example of inequity is India’s Health Care Improvement Act, amended in 2010 to allow tribes to employ essential medical professionals licensed in another state. When the Passamaquoddy Tribe attempted to bring out-of-state doctors to their reservation, the state of Maine refused.

These are just two examples of how the tribes of Maine are being left behind, living in conditions that constitute human rights violations.

Mainers would be angry if the federal government allowed 49 other states to receive health care and domestic violence protections, but not Maine.

Senator King says he will continue “to help facilitate discussions between the tribes and the state…”. The problem here is that Senator King assumes the state means Governor Mills. In April, the Maine House of Representatives voted to completely amend the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and to allow tribes access to federal laws with other tribes. The legislation would have passed through the Maine Senate, but Governor Mills threatened to veto the legislation, so the Maine Senate folded like a house of cards.

Senator King’s letter to voters says, “It is important to note that the Settlement Act was just that – a settlement…”. The Settlement Act was not meant to be set in stone, and Congress routinely reopens and amends decades-old federal laws. Even one of the drafters of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, Tim Woodcock, staffer of the US Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs and US Senator Bill Cohen, said so in the States Task Force. Maine Tribals in 2007:

“And I recognized that MICSA and (the accompanying Maine enforcement law) may well be just the beginning of an ongoing relationship that may well have considerable momentum and may well be revisited from from time to time to be adjusted. There was a mechanism for this to happen and I have to say in retrospect that it surprised me that it wasn’t really changed at some point, but I also certainly agree that these are tricky issues.

Members of the Tribal States Task Force unanimously agreed that the Maine Implementation Act should be viewed as a living, living document with flexibility to allow for adjustments warranted by changes in the relationship between tribes and states. Former Maine Attorney General James Tierney said the same thing.

Forty-two years later, the rules have not changed. It’s time to modernize the Settlement Act. It’s time to act. Senator King’s premise is that a “deal is a deal.” A deal is a deal? From 1778 to 1871, the US government made over 500 treaties with Native American tribes. All of these treaties have been violated or broken outright by the US government or its states. Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Sioux said it well: “They made a lot of promises to us, but they only kept one. They promised to take our land, and they did.

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