AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of indigenous tribes in Maine are concerned Gov. Janet Mills’ delay on signing a criminal justice bill means they’ll encounter resistance from the Blaine House to legislative efforts to restore their broader sovereign rights.
The Democratic governor made repairing state relations with the tribes one of her priorities after taking office last year. She signed laws last year changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day and banned Native American mascots from public schools. She restored a state commission focused on tribal relations and appointed an adviser on tribal affairs.
But leaders of the four federally recognized tribes in Maine who met Thursday with the Bangor Daily News editorial board say how Mills reacts to the 22 recommendations that came out of the Maine Indian Claims Task Force in January will show how much she supports them.
“I think it will show us what kind of support we have from Gov. Mills, because this is the real substance,” said Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.
A key recommendation is to enact a bill allowing tribal courts jurisdiction over certain domestic violence crimes committed by non-indigenous defendants on tribal lands, which was recognized as a federal right under the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. It was passed by the Legislature this summer, but it has been held by Mills.
Donna Loring, Mills’ tribal adviser, said in a July OpEd in the Portland Press Herald the governor would sign the bill. But Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation said state officials are stuck on whether tribes should be tied to the U.S. Constitution when trying non-indigenous people.
Francis argued those rights are already granted under the federal Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which states all defendants receive “all other rights whose protection is necessary under the Constitution of the United States.” He said tying tribal law to the Constitution would make Maine’s Wabanaki tribes an outlier nationally and called it “problematic.”
Tribal sovereignty has been a difficult issue since the signing of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act in 1980, meant to resolve a $150 million land claim lawsuit filed against the state of Maine by the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the early 1970s.
Mills, who served as attorney general for eight years prior to her 2018 election as governor, had a tense relationship with tribes in her former job. During the Democratic primary, tribes and progressive groups sent her an open letter criticizing “attacks” on tribal rights after the state sided against tribes in lawsuits over water quality and fishing rights.
As governor, Mills has taken action intended to wind down one of those lawsuits by upgrading water-quality standards. But Francis said “not much has substantially changed” between the state and tribes despite “a lot of rhetoric on the issue” during the gubernatorial race.
“We’ve seen a lot of things like Indigenous Peoples Day and things like that,” he said. “But it seems like when the rubber meets the road on improving the relationship in terms of recognizing the sovereignty of tribes, it’s been challenging.”
Mills and Loring declined an interview through Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for the governor. Crete described negotiations over the domestic violence bill as “productive,” adding that Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office are trying to craft “clarifying language to preserve the [constitutional] rights of the accused while pursuing justice for the victims.”
The statement did not address Mills’ specific concerns with the bill. Crete said Mills “believes that Native women deserve justice for crimes committed against them and that Maine’s Tribes should have the ability to prosecute those crimes” in their courts and that “work on one issue does not and should not affect work on other future issues.”
A spokesperson for Frey, a Democrat, said his office shares similar concerns and that ensuring constitutional rights for non-natives will “help insulate the law from future legal challenge.”
Under the fraught 1980 law, Maine was able to treat the Passamaquoddy tribes and the Penobscot Nation like municipalities. The Aroostook Band of Micmacs were essentially added to the act in 1989 — which the tribe never ratified — and the law treats Maliseets differently than the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy tribes. Tribes say they have suffered economically and culturally under the act and equate their relationship with the state as being “wards.”
A key public hearing on those recommendations is scheduled for Feb. 14. The task force wants to keep all 22 recommendations in a single bill to keep contentious issues including gaming rights from being removed.
Legislators on the panel say it’s too early to decide on that. Rep. Chris Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, said the issue of sovereignty as complex, and some of the legal elements will not be easily divorced from current Maine law. Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, whose district includes the Oxford casino, said she anticipates implementing all recommendations will be hard, saying the task force did not get “balanced input” from all interests.
“It’s a good idea that we sit back and negotiate and find out what works for both sides, while understanding that one side doesn’t outweigh the others,” Keim said.
Tribal leaders have been cautiously optimistic that the Legislature is open to restoring sovereignty. Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Darrell Newell of Indian Township said Mills has been open to talking with tribes and “makes a better state governor than she did attorney general.” But Francis said any delay on the recommendations could put them in jeopardy.
“I don’t think we can count on this legislative environment next year,” he said.