Editorial Note from the Bangor Daily News: Maulian Bryant is the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador. Osihkiyol Crofton-Macdonald is the Houlton Band of Maliseets tribal ambassador. Aaron Dana is the Passamaquoddy tribal representative. Rena Newell is a Sipayik citizen. Richard Silliboy is the Mi’kmaq vice chief. They are writing as part of an effort with the Wabanaki Alliance to share tribal perspectives in the BDN opinion section. These columns will appear monthly. This is the second column in the series. Read all Wabanaki Voices columns here.

The Maine Legislature recently amended LD 2007, legislation meant to restore Wabanaki Nations’ self-determination, after negotiations with Gov. Janet Mills and other stakeholders. The amended bill takes a more narrow approach and focuses on establishing stronger tribal courts controlled by tribal governments. It’s a welcome step forward in a long journey ahead to regain state recognition of inherent tribal sovereignty. Approval of LD 2007 would also signal an encouraging trend of rejecting the false notion that the Maine Implementing Act was carved in stone in favor of the statutory reality that it was intended to be flexible reflecting changes in the Wabanaki relationship with the state of Maine.

In 1980, Congress passed the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA), the culmination of years of determined diplomacy, litigation and advocacy by the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation, and in the final stages, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. While the law gave tribes in Maine financial reparations for stolen tribal land, it also stripped the Wabanaki Nations of their legal ability to self-govern. Economists at the Harvard Kennedy School released a  landmark report in 2022 that reviewed the economic and social impacts of the tribes’ lack of legally recognized self-governance, finding that “the subjugation of the Wabanaki Nation’s self-governing capacities is blocking economic development to the detriment of both tribal and nontribal citizens, alike.”

Many who seek a stronger, more equitable relationship between the Wabanaki and state of Maine have prioritized the recommendations from the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act. The task force included the five Wabanaki chiefs, a bipartisan group of legislators from both chambers of the Maine Legislature and non-voting representatives from the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office and Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission. The group deliberated for six months in 2019 and produced a report with 22 recommended changes to the Maine Implementing Act, the state-level legislation that comprises the Maine statutory portion of MICSA.

For the last three legislative sessions, the Wabanaki Nations, working with the Wabanaki Alliance, have labored to enact legislation that would implement the task force recommendations. We’ve made tremendous progress each time, but have fallen short of passing some keystone legislation due to opposition to the larger omnibus bills, or extenuating circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic. In October 2023, hundreds of people showed up at the State House to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day and call on Maine’s lawmakers to restore tribal sovereignty. In February, more than 600 people submitted testimony on the original version of LD 2007, almost all of them in support of the bill, during its legislative hearing. Again and again, people in Maine have made it clear that they support restoring Wabanaki self-determination, and that overwhelming support helped bring key stakeholders to the table on LD 2007 to make real progress this legislative session.

The revised version of LD 2007 reflects the engagement of leaders of the Wabanaki Nations with the attorney general’s office, the governor’s office, the Judiciary Committee, bill sponsor House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and its bipartisan co-sponsors to find common ground on the important issue of criminal jurisdiction — a foundational aspect of self-governance for tribal nations. If approved, it adopts most of federal Indian law related to the jurisdiction of tribal courts, including the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2022. The Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation can immediately implement the expanded powers for their respective courts and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and Mi’kmaq Nation have the authority to do so upon creation of their tribal courts. LD 2007 also recognizes the exclusive authority of the Penobscot Nation to regulate drinking water similarly to the authority gained by the Passamaquoddy Tribe in legislation passed in 2022.

LD 2007 as amended will create safer tribal communities, help us combat the raging opioid epidemic and give us more capacity to protect and provide for the health and well-being of tribal communities. We urge the Legislature to enact this bill quickly.