AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Thursday got an overview of the legal relationship between the state of Maine and the American Indian tribes whose presence here predates the arrival of European explorers.
Attorney Henry Sockbeson, a native of Indian Island who now lives in Massachusetts, spoke at the invitation of the committee, according to committee co-chairman Sen. Lawrence Bliss, D-South Portland.
“Nine of the 14 members of the committee are new to the Legislature this session,” Bliss explained in an interview after the presentation. The committee has invited a number of speakers to provide broad background on the areas within its jurisdiction, which includes most legislative proposals that affect the tribes, he said.
Sockbeson, now retired, has spent the last 15 years working with the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, owners of the Foxwoods resort and casino in Connecticut.
In his presentation, he said the relationship between tribes and the state government in Maine is different from what it is in other states, largely because of the language of the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980. That settlement, which appropriated $81.5 million for tribes and provided for the reacquisition of na-tive lands, also established a policy for the tribes to govern their own affairs tied to the “home rule” standard granted to Maine municipalities, Sockbeson told the committee.
But in the intervening years, municipal authority has eroded, he said, resulting in weaker self-governance protection for Maine’s tribes. As time goes on, it is appropriate to consider amending the language of the law to bring it in line with the original intent of the settlement act, Sockbeson said.
Sockbeson’s presentation was followed by testimony from Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. Mills emphasized the hard work that went into reaching the 1980 settlement and cautioned the committee against making changes to the law.
“Every word was meticulously and carefully chosen” to reduce or eliminate generalities and ambiguities, Mills said. As controversies arise, she said — recent hot-button issues have included environmental regulation and Indian casinos — her office will work with the tribes to resolve problems “within the framework of the existing agreement.”