Janet Mills’ criticism of Maine tribal sovereignty push surprised some who crafted it

Natalie Williams | BDN
Natalie Williams | BDN
Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Maggie Dana, right, speaks as Rena Newell looks on at the Bangor Daily News office on Jan. 30.
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Members of the Maine task force that crafted tribal sovereignty recommendations Gov. Janet Mills criticized for being too sweeping didn’t know how she felt until last week despite months of work under her administration’s eye.
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AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Maine task force that crafted tribal sovereignty recommendations Gov. Janet Mills criticized for being too sweeping didn’t know how she felt until last week despite months of work under her administration’s eye.

Mills, a Democrat, said Friday she had concerns with the “sweeping nature” of a proposal aiming to restore sovereignty to Maine’s four federally recognized tribes, pointing to how the changes would affect the ability of municipalities to weigh in on tribal development, how federal law would apply to tribal land and how many state regulations would no longer apply there.

In interviews on Monday, members of the Maine Indian Claims Task Force, which began meeting in July, said the governor’s office never raised those concerns while recommendations were being created. The task force was required to have at least one non-voting member of the governor’s office appointed to it by state law.

The task force made 22 recommendations that, if approved, would make substantial changes to a state law created to implement a 1980 federal land claims settlement with the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Its implementation boxed Maine tribes out of sovereignty provisions enjoyed by other U.S. tribes in gaming, natural resources and taxation.

Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Maggie Dana of Pleasant Point said Mills’ reaction was like a “punch in the gut.” She said she was hopeful after listening to Mills’ State of the State address last month and thought the governor would stake out a progressive stance on the issue.

“I expected more from her,” Dana said. “I had this higher expectation that she wouldn’t take this stance.”

Mills made fixing the state’s fraught relationship with its tribes a top priorities after taking office last year. She signed laws banning Native American mascots from public schools, adopting Indigenous Peoples Day and tightening Maine’s water quality standards with the goal of bypassing a federal lawsuit between the state and tribes.

But tribes have worried about her level of support for their push, particularly as a bill that would transfer domestic violence jurisdiction to the tribes remains unsigned by the governor. Mills has agreed with the task force on the need to create a conflict resolution mechanism and supported tribal rights to try members for minor crimes committed on tribal lands.

Chief Edward Peter-Paul of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, who are pursuing their own sovereignty proposal through parallel efforts, said he was surprised Mills weighed in when she did, noting the bill has not been through all of its public hearings yet. He said he expected the governor to “speak from the beginning” if she had concerns.

Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, a task force member, said the panel often heard from Melanie Loyzim, the deputy director of the Department of Environmental Protection, who is listed as a governor’s designee on the task force’s website. Perry said Donna Loring, a former Penobscot Nation police chief and state representative who serves as the governor’s tribal affairs adviser, often attended meetings but never mentioned Mills’ concerns.

“I didn’t see any alarms going up while we were going through this,” Perry said.

Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said in a statement that the administration followed proceedings and will try to work through some of Mills’ concerns with the panel. Crete did not address why the governor did not raise concerns about the recommendations until last week, and Loring declined to be interviewed.

Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, a former attorney general who co-chaired the task force, said he had a sense of where opposition from outside parties might be, but it wasn’t until he talked with a Mills adviser last Thursday that he had more insight into the governor’s feelings.

“I anticipated the executive branch wouldn’t be ready to accept the entire menu of recommendations,” Carpenter said.

Task force members said they were still hopeful the disagreements could be worked out, noting the bill still has a long way to go. There is also fear that the legislation faces a tough road.

“Maybe this is our one last chance” at getting the law changed, Dana said, saying there hasn’t been this much support for tribal sovereignty in decades. “We still have to have hope.”

 


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