Maine tribes have been left behind. Congress should fix this.


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Kevin Hancock is the CEO of Hancock Lumber Company and a former member of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

My interest in the sovereign rights of Indigenous communities began in 2012 when I began traveling to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota. It’s a place I’ve visited more than two dozen times and I have many friends there today. Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and today is home to an incredible community of people who have preserved their tribal sovereignty despite over a century of oppression and sustained efforts to eradicate their cultural identity.

Sovereignty, along with the economic autonomy and sense of ownership of the future that comes with it, is a key characteristic of federally recognized tribes – one that confers respect, trust, responsibility and opportunity.

In Maine, although the Wabanaki tribes are federally recognized, they do not enjoy the same kind of sovereignty as indigenous nations like the Oglala Sioux and hundreds of other federally recognized tribes across the country. This is due to the unique laws that govern the relationship between Maine’s tribes and the state: the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) and the corresponding state. executing act.

As many people know, MICSA was enacted in 1980 to resolve a complex and historic land claims case brought by the tribes. Due to both practical and political forces, the parties to the lawsuit worked to find an agreement that could resolve these complex issues out of court. MICSA was the product of this negotiation, eliminating tribal land claims in exchange for payment from the federal government. But the act also went beyond that, codifying a unique jurisdictional arrangement that treats the four tribes more like municipalities than sovereign political entities.

A relatively neglected but significant provision included late in the bill’s drafting process has made it difficult for Maine to enforce certain federal laws that Congress passes to benefit Indian tribes across the country. Although the provision did not attract much attention at the time, it resulted in a series of challenges to the economic security of the Wabanaki tribes – from blocking the Penobscot Nation’s ability to directly request federal disaster funds prevent the Passamaquoddy Tribe from being able to use Affordable Care Act authorities to attract medical professionals.

Looking back 40 years, it is now apparent to many that constraints like these within MICSA prevented the Wabanaki tribes from achieving greater prosperity and self-reliance. I pass no judgment on the intent behind those who traded MICSA, but, as times change, so should we. Even in today’s partisan climate, lawmakers regularly find ways to come together to update old laws to reflect today’s challenges. This law should not be immune to that same kind of rational scrutiny.

Fortunately, a focused legislative effort is underway in Congress to open the door to ensure that future federal programs created by Congress to benefit federally recognized tribes across the country apply to tribes in Maine. Although this legislation, the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, does not touch on the essential design features of MICSA, it would ensure that in the future, new laws passed by Congress for the benefit of tribal nations would apply. also to federally recognized tribes in Maine.

I hope our federal legislators will remember that they have a special responsibility to the federally recognized tribes and thereby support their economic sovereignty and right to self-government. Respecting the voice and wishes of tribal communities is the least we can do as we strive to overcome a past in which indigenous tribes have been denigrated and denied the most basic rights that our country represents. Federally recognized tribal sovereignty should not be denied to tribal communities in Maine. They deserve the same status as the Oglala Sioux tribe of South Dakota and all other tribes in the country.


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