In this Wednesday, Dec., 5, 2018, photo, Tribal Representative Rena Newall applauds after being sworn-in with fellow lawmakers in the House Chamber at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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Efforts by the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik to develop a new source of water for its Down East reservation have long-predated the current global pandemic and drought conditions in much of Maine.

This situation, following years of fluctuating water quality from the district that serves both the reservation and the neighboring city of Eastport, simultaneously highlights the urgency and the complexity of the tribal sovereignty push underway in the Maine Legislature.

The state says water from the Passamaquoddy Water District is safe, but that hasn’t dispelled local distrust — to the point that many tribal members had been turning to a private well next to a former Robbinston church to fill up water jugs. That well ran dry due to drought this summer.

Between 2004 and 2014, there were 28 health-related violations at the water district, as compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and reported by the BDN several years ago. A 2018 review from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student found the public water had a higher level of certain cancer-causing substances compared to local well water, though the review found the district water to be safer by other carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic measures.

Nearly a decade ago, the tribe started testing well sites on land it owns and pays taxes on in the neighboring town of Perry. But after pump-out tests negatively impacted several private wells in the area, Perry town voters enacted a moratorium on water exploration activities and the town later put a large scale water extraction ordinance in place, which the tribe said at the time would add unnecessary burdens and costs to its plans.

“Our water sovereignty is restricted,” said Maggie Dana, the vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik. “We have an answer, we have a resolution, but we’re blocked all the time.”

This ties back to comments from Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis gave the BDN editorial board early in 2020 when discussing how Maine tribal communities face many disparities compared to their neighbors. For example, members of the Penobscot Nation are far more likely to be unemployed, die younger and earn less than their non-tribal peers.

“There’s a lot of reasons for it, but certainly our ability to address it is one of them,” Francis said at the time. That meeting came after a task force in January released 22 recommendations for changing the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act.

The Passamaquoddy attempts to develop a new water source is just one instance of Maine tribes being constrained in their ability to address lingering and pressing issues for their people. It should serve as a crystallizing reminder about the need to refocus the State of Maine’s relationship with and commitments to its tribal neighbors.

It also is a reminder of the persistent complexity of many of the issues at hand in the discussion about updating the 40-year old agreement between tribes and the state. While there clearly needs to be a recalibration of how far tribal sovereignty extends and where state authority begins — one that better empowers the tribes and more clearly envisions a state-tribal relationship based in cooperation — the rights and realities of non-tribal neighbors cannot evaporate in this reworking. In this case of the Passamaquoddy and the Perry wells, for instance, there needs to be a better balance between the ability of the tribe to determine how it uses its land to support its people and some consideration of the impact on surrounding communities.

Importantly, that balancing work is ongoing in the current effort to modernize the 1980 land-claims settlement. And as of last week, conversations on this issue of land acquisition and others were continuing. The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee signed off on the sweeping Settlement Act overhaul while separating some of the potentially contentious or unresolved issues into separate bills.

There is significant value in that approach. Despite ongoing uncertainty about if and when lawmakers could return for a special session, and whether or not this legislation will get the final vote it deserves from this Legislature, a path forward using multiple bills can help ensure that more politically charged parts of the effort like gaming rights don’t sink the whole thing.

And regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen in terms of the Legislature coming back into session, the tireless collaboration and negotiation that has led to this point has produced a strong framework for much needed change. That framework, and the spirit behind it, should endure.

The BDN Editorial Board

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...