Janet Mills splits with top Democrats to hit ‘sweeping nature’ of tribal sovereignty effort

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Janet Mills speaks to reporters before signing papers to posthumously pardon Don Gellers, a Passamaquoddy tribal lawyer convicted of marijuana possession at the State House in Augusta in this Jan. 7, 2020, file photo.
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Mills made repairing relations with tribes a priority after taking office. But tribal leaders have been concerned that negotiations over a domestic violence bill spelled trouble for new sovereignty recommendations.
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AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills split with top Democratic lawmakers to say in a Friday letter she is concerned with the “sweeping nature” of a slate of sovereignty recommendations that tribal members told lawmakers would change their relationship for the better.

Mills, a Democrat, made repairing relations with tribes an early priority after taking office in 2019. But tribal leaders have voiced concerns that negotiations over a domestic violence bill spelled trouble for 22 recommendations made by the Indian Claims Task Force covering subject areas including taxation, fishing, hunting, natural resources, gambling and the judiciary.

The task force is looking to adjust the provisions of a state law corresponding to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, a federal law that settled a massive land claim by the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy tribe but boxed Maine tribes out of sovereignty provisions that other tribes enjoy under U.S. law.

Mills split with House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, on the bill, while Attorney General Aaron Frey cited similar concerns. Mills supported some provisions while outlining concerns about several others in a letter to the Judiciary Committee on Friday during a hearing on the recommendations.

Lobbyists representing textile and forest products, one of whom was part of the original drafting of the bill, said restoring that sovereignty could lead to uncertainty and financial cost to their clients. The hearing was at times contentious and emotional, with native people members detailed their personal experiences of living under the settlement agreement.

A main sticking point in the negotiations has been a bill passed last year that would allow tribes to prosecute non-native defendants for domestic violence crimes on tribal lands that has been held by Mills. Sonya Dana, a Passamaquoddy tribal councilor, said she and other women in her tribe have suffered “tremendously” from domestic violence, which more than half of native women experience. She argued that tribes could better address these crimes.

“Because of the lack of laws, the violence is so rampant,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Mills said the impacts of the recommendations on non-tribal citizens were not given due consideration and could make the state-tribal relationship worse. She said she was “deeply concerned” they would “have the opposite of its intended effect and would lead to the degradation of the Tribal-State relationship by giving rise to disputes and disagreements.”

The governor also said it was “unclear” how federal law would regulate areas designated as tribal land under the proposal and wondered how the state would navigate criteria allowing it to regulate fishing by natives off tribal lands “solely for conservation purposes.”

She said changes that would allow tribes to regulate natural resources would give Maine communities “no influence” on development of projects and that no longer allowing the ability to collect taxes on tribal land would have “obvious consequences” for the state, municipalities and businesses looking to compete against tribal businesses.

Attorney General Aaron Frey, a Democrat, voiced similar concerns in testimony. He asked if the Legislature can simply “deem” all federal Indian law take precedence over Maine law, while tribal representatives asked lawmakers to consider what tribes have lost under the agreement.

Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indian said the revenue her tribe lost due to the act was “a lot more significant” for the tribe. Penobscot Nation ambassador Maulian Dana said the state should consider the bill’s intention before having a “knee-jerk” reaction.”

“There has to be a little faith in the tribes,” Dana said.

Mills agreed with the need to create a conflict resolution mechanism and supported the tribes’ right to try members for minor crimes committed on tribal lands, and was committed to working to “remove disparities for tribal citizens.”

Pierce Atwood lawyer Matt Manahan — who has represented paper mills in the past and represented a textile company, an energy firm and several towns on Friday — said tribes having regulatory control over their waters could cost companies “millions of dollars” to comply with their rules, and said tribes would be under no obligation to negotiate with companies.

Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, accused Manahan of trying to scare the committee and asked Manahan if he had spoken to the tribes about his concerns. Manahan said “there’s no point in asking” because they would not be obligated to negotiate unless the law demanded it.

Tim Woodcock, a Bangor lawyer representing the Maine Forest Products Council who served as minority counsel to the U.S. Senate committee that created the settlement, said the bill was “too broad.” He also took issue with tribal leaders’ main grievance about the settlement — that tribes didn’t understand repercussions and that elements were included without their knowledge.

“This was not done in the middle of the night,” he said. “That’s not how Congress works.”


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