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Hearings on Maine Indian Claims Act Changes Show Challenges Ahead

Passamaquoddy Bay runs between Passamaquoddy tribal land in Maine and Canada. One of the main sources of contention in the act is natural resources rights. (Jay Woodworth/Creative Commons)
Passamaquoddy Bay runs between Passamaquoddy tribal land in Maine and Canada. One of the main sources of contention in the act is natural resources rights. (Jay Woodworth/Creative Commons)
February 20, 2020

AUGUSTA, Maine -- Maine is considering whether to revise its legal relationship with American Indian nations -- but two recent public hearings show a rough road ahead.

Maine treats tribal nations as municipalities rather than sovereign nations, which is unique among the states.

Now, the Maine Legislature is voting on amending the 40-year-old Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act.

Bill sponsors are recommending changes granting tribal nations more autonomy in taxation, economic development and natural resources, among other issues.

One of the biggest sticking points is casino development. But Darren Ranco, who chairs Native American programs at the University of Maine, says most people may not understand how much control most states have.

"The federal system already gives states quite a bit of control over tribal gaming enterprises," he explains. "States and tribes enter into those kinds of relationships around gaming as partners."

At a public hearing on Wednesday, there were close to 60 testimonies on issues such as gaming and criminal justice.

Last Friday when the first public hearing was held, Gov. Janet Mills wrote a letter expressing concern with the bill. She maintains most of the amendments would worsen the state's relationship with the tribes, including increasing legal disputes.

Tribes currently are treated as municipalities and follow state law except for "internal tribal matters" -- some criminal cases, natural resources and gaming rights, among other legal areas.

Ranco says the municipality restrictions have hurt Indian nations in Maine for too long.

"Basically means anything that the tribes try to do in terms of supporting ourselves and our communities for environmental protection or economic development, or all the things that can make us important neighbors, has been even that more difficult," he states.

The Maine Indian Claims Act was first enacted by Congress in 1980 to settle a legal dispute between the tribal nations and the state of Maine. It also limits how federal legislation can benefit tribes in Maine.

The state Legislature has tried to amend the law numerous times since then.

Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Public News Service - ME