On Monday, Maine celebrates its third Indigenous Peoples’ Day after the Legislature approved a switch from Columbus Day in 2019. It was an overdue recognition of our tribal neighbors and the important role that indigenous Americans have played throughout Maine’s history and the history of our country.
“When we take a traumatic event in history and transform it into a chance for healing and enriching gaps between our communities it is a powerful thing,” Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana, who led the effort to change the holiday in Bangor several years ago, has explained in the past.
The Legislature delivered another symbolic victory in 2019 by making Maine the first state to ban native American mascots in public schools.
Symbolic action, however, cannot be the only action. It’s time for meaningful reform to parts of the 1980 land claim settlement that, while ending a significant amount of uncertainty at the time about ownership of two-thirds of the land in the state of Maine, also set the stage for decades of friction. It is in the state and the tribes’ best interest to rebalance this relationship as one of cooperative, self-governing partners. It’s also the right thing to do.
“The stuff that we could be doing if the state would just be a partner, versus trying to control what we’re doing, could be huge,“ Chief Clarissa Sabattus of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, told the Bangor Daily News last year. The Aroostook County tribe is already one of the region’s largest employers, offering jobs and services to tribal and non-tribal residents.
A task force charged with reviewing and proposing changes to the settlement act developed a set of 22 recommendations on issues such as taxation, land acquisition, fishing and hunting, natural resources, gaming and criminal jurisdiction. That led to sweeping legislation, which was unfortunately derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Legislature’s quick adjournment last year.
The effort got back on track this year with another bill, LD 1626, that would implement the committee’s recommendations. The bill was pushed off again by the Legislature and will be considered next year.
We understand that considering and negotiating changes to the settlement act and resulting laws and practices is difficult work, and we are encouraged that efforts at reaching consensus in some of these areas are ongoing.
As they continue to consider the task force’s recommendations and other proposed changes, policymakers and tribal leaders should keep watch for areas where updates to the act are the most straightforward and feasible and will bring the most benefit, to both the tribes and the state. These areas can be the starting point for a commitment to work toward changes that will empower the tribes.
Recognizing our tribal neighbors on Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a nice and powerful gesture. But state leaders also must follow through on the hard work that has already been done to rebalance this complicated, critical relationship.