Understanding Tribal Sovereignty

For more than 40 years, the state of Maine has used legislation passed in 1980 to deny the Wabanaki Nations’ inherent tribal sovereignty, excluding the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Mi’kmaq Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Penobscot Nation from many rights and protections guaranteed by Federal Indian Law. This has resulted in decades of social and economic barriers for the Wabanaki people and surrounding communities.

Use the resources on this page to learn more about the issue and its history, and then visit our Take Action page to find out how you can support Wabanaki sovereignty.

What is tribal sovereignty?

Tribal sovereignty is the right of tribes to govern themselves. Under the U.S. Constitution, federally recognized tribes generally have the same powers, with a few exceptions, as federal and state governments with respect to the regulation of affairs on tribal land. This includes the inherent right to sustain their traditional cultural values and practices, establish their own form of government, determine citizenship requirements, enact legislation, and establish law enforcement and court systems. Federally recognized tribes are still subject to federal statutes and court decisions that are generally applicable to tribes and their citizens.

What is a federally recognized tribe?

The Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior defines a federally recognized tribe as “an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation.” Federally recognized tribes possess the inherent right to self-govern and as such are entitled to certain benefits, services, and protections established under federal law.

There are currently 574 federally recognized tribes, including the four Wabanaki Nations in Maine: the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Mi’kmaq Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe (at Motahkomikuk and Sipayik), and Penobscot Nation.

Why do the Wabanaki have a more restrictive status than all other federally recognized tribes?

In 1980, the State of Maine and U.S. Congress passed legislation to resolve a dispute between the federal government and the state of Maine over the illegal sale and seizure of federally protected tribal land. Collectively known as the Settlements Acts, the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the state law that accompanied it, the Maine Implementing Act, required the Wabanaki Nations to give up their claim to their dispossessed lands in exchange for a federally funded pathway to buy back just 2.5% of the 12 million acres unlawfully lost. For more than 40 years, the state of Maine has used this legislation to deny the Wabanaki Nations the same rights, powers, privileges, and immunities as other federally recognized tribes in the United States. 

How have the Settlement Acts harmed the Wabanaki Nations and the state of Maine?

Four decades after their passage, the Settlement Acts are widely regarded as a failure. The laws have been applied unequally among the Wabanaki Nations, no tribe has been able to buy back the full amount of land, and legal disputes persist. The state’s interpretation of the Settlement Acts has also resulted in a downgrading of the Wabanaki Nations’ sovereign status, rights of self-governance, and ability to benefit automatically from federal laws created for Indian Country, effectively reducing them to municipalities. They are the only federally recognized tribes to be treated in this way. 

As a direct result of the Settlement Acts, the Wabanaki Nations and the State of Maine have been unable to benefit from more than 150 federal laws passed since 1980, missing out on important opportunities in economic development, health care, housing, environmental protections, disaster response, and development of tribal government services. 

Research shows that the tribes’ lack of self-governance has resulted in lagging economic growth for Wabanaki nations as well as their surrounding communities. While a 30-year boom is happening elsewhere in Indian Country, with tribal nations powering personal income growth of 61% on average, the Wabanaki nations are stark underperformers with just 9% growth. Beyond income, the lag also represents thousands of lost jobs, millions of dollars in lost tax revenue, and loss of opportunity for both tribal and non-tribal citizens.

Who supports restoring Wabanaki sovereignty and self-governance?

Restoring Wabanaki sovereignty has strong bipartisan support. In 2020, a bipartisan task force recommended 22 changes to the Settlement Acts to restore self governance over a range of issues, including criminal justice, the use of natural resources, gaming, taxation, and land acquisition. Efforts to modernize the Settlement Acts by implementing many of these task force recommendations have received broad bipartisan support in the Maine Legislature. 

Support also continues to grow across Maine. Recognizing the Wabanaki Nations’ inherent rights to self-govern helps move the Wabanaki nations and the state of Maine forward together, with improved economic opportunity, careful stewardship of the land, and renewed partnership among neighbors. 

How can I support Wabanaki sovereignty?
Understanding tribal sovereignty is the first step toward supporting the Wabanaki Nations’ inherent right to self-govern. Here are some ways you can use that knowledge to support Wabanaki sovereignty:
  • Write a letter to the editor. Use our LTE Guide to write a letter to the editor in support of Wabanaki sovereignty. 
  • Vote. Use our candidate endorsement page to find out which candidates for elected office support tribal sovereignty, and support those who stand with the Wabanaki. 
  • Join the Wabanaki Alliance Coalition. If your business or organization supports Wabanaki sovereignty, join the Wabanaki Alliance Coalition, a group of people who represent businesses, faith-based groups, and racial and social justice organizations who work together to support tribal sovereignty and the Wabanaki Alliance. 
  • Sign up for our email list. Join our email list for alerts about legislation, events and other news. 
  • Donate to the Wabanaki Alliance. As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, we rely on contributions from supporters to be able to do our work. If you are able, please donate to the Wabanaki Alliance
Understanding Tribal Sovereignty
March 2023
Produced by Adrian Madanes and the Maine Youth for Climate Justice Communications Team in collaboration with the Wabanaki Alliance. 

Video Library

Faith-Based Advocacy: Tribal Sovereignty
February 2, 2023
Hosted by the Maine Council of Churches, with Osihkiyol Crofton-Macdonald, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians Ambassador and Shirley Hager, Friends Committee on Maine Public Policy and the Wabanaki Alliance Tribal Coalition
2022 Common Ground Fair
September 23, 2022
Hosted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, with Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation Ambassador 
Tribal Sovereignty and Wabanaki Nationhood – Past, Present, and Future
October 26, 2022
Hosted by the Portland Public Library and Southern Maine Conservation Collaborative, with Osihkiyol Crofton-Macdonald, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians Ambassador 
Newsroom Live: Tribal Sovereignty 
February 22, 2022
Hosted by the Portland Press Herald, with Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation Ambassador