In this July 23, 2019 file photo, players play at poker tables in the casino at the WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Okla. Credit: Sue Ogrocki / AP

HOULTON, Maine — The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, with the support of the Southern Aroostook Development Corp., is trying to garner support for a bill allowing the tribe to negotiate for a casino in Aroostook County.

The proposed legislation, LD 554, would let Maine tribes such as the Maliseets adopt parts of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a federal gaming law passed in 1988, which gives autonomy over gaming facilities to tribes in the United States. The federal law has not been applicable to Maine tribes because of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

If passed, the bill would not allow the Maliseets to construct a casino immediately, but would provide for them to negotiate directly with the state if they wished to pursue building one in the future.

“In general, federal Indian law applies to all tribes in the United States, except for the four tribes in Maine,” Maliseet Chief Clarissa Sabattis said during a Zoom meeting held with Southern Aroostook Development on March 11. “Because of this settlement act, any federal beneficial acts that are put into place by the federal government to help strengthen self-determination, economic development and our governments in general don’t apply to us unless they’re explicitly stated on the floor [of Congress] by one of the Maine delegations, and that never happens.”

SADC Executive Director Jon McLaughlin also voiced his support for the bill, though not necessarily because of the prospects of bringing a casino to Houlton.

“I’m not pro or anti-casino. I don’t care one way or the other,” he said. “I just think the Maliseets and the other tribes in Maine should be given the same treatment as the rest of the Native Americans in this country.”

Tribal efforts to bring gaming to their territories have largely been unsuccessful. In 2018, The Maine Supreme Judicial Court declined to hear the question in the issue of tribal gaming, after an order was passed in the Maine House by former Malisset tribal Rep. Henry Bear asking the court to decide the issue. In response, the Maliseets said they would no longer send a tribal representative to Augusta.

There have also been numerous other attempts to build a casino in Houlton, such as through a Maine Senate bill in 2017 and a referendum in 2015. But these attempts were thwarted by voters in both the Legislature and the general public.

A public hearing on the latest bill will be held in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on March 17. The bill is expected to be heavily opposed by existing casinos in the state, including Hollywood Casino, Hotel and Raceway in Bangor.

Sabattis said she hopes to present letters of support to the committee at the hearing, not just from tribal members but from others within the greater Houlton community.

“I think it would be good for the Legislature to hear from other people here, not just from us,” Sabattis said. “This is just the starting point for us, but it’s doing it in a way that it’s really supposed to be done, versus just through the legislation.”

Letters of support may be sent to the SADC at jon@sadcaroostook.org.