The Chiefs who addressed the House and Senate with House Speaker Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson.

March 17, 2023

By Ramona du Houx

On March 16, Maine’s five tribal chiefs addressed lawmakers at the State Capitol for the first time since  2002. United they implored the legislature to support their sovereignty.

“All we want is for state government to break decisively from the past and join the era of self-determination for tribal nations that has proven so successful throughout the rest of the country,” said Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation. “We are capable of self-governance and should be treated as partners rather than threats to the future of the state.”

The Tribes are governed by  landmark 1980 land-claims settlement that effectively relegates their status to that of cities and towns and has left them lacking the sweeping rights and funding that other U.S. tribes have over an enormous variety of major issues like education, gaming, natural resources and other policy areas. A Harvard University study released last December found Maine Tribes saw economic growth of only 9 percent between 1989 and 2020 under the settlement, compared with 61 percent for non-Maine tribes.

“Our success is your success,” said Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseets.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District attended the address after championing federal legislation last year that would have allowed Maine Tribes to benefit from future federal laws.

Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, invited the return of the tribal address, and is planning another legislative effort this year to overhaul the settlement.

“Today was more than a joint convention, it was a powerful and historical moment when Wabanaki leadership presented Maine lawmakers with a compelling look both at our past and our future. I am grateful that Chief Sabattis, Chief Newell, Chief Francis, Chief Peter Paul and Chief Nicholas shared their time, their words and their history of resilience. By no means does the State of the Tribes Address forgive a shameful history of pain and tragedy, discrimination and injustice. However, it can signify an enduring commitment to perform the critical work of reflection, understanding, and collaboration in order to continue to heal past wrongs and work towards a more just and equitable future,” said Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross.

Governor Janet Mills did not attend Thursday’s address, with her office citing a scheduling conflict. For many this was an obvious insult. Mills has supported other Tribal bills like exempting tribal members from state income tax and giving tribes exclusive rights to online sports betting. She also signed a bill to address drastic water concerns at Pleasant Point.

The Wabanaki Nation of five tribes cover remote areas of the state and their leaders put a lot of effort into attending and addressing the joint session of the legislature to “work together,” with lawmakers.

“We are strong. We are resilient. And most importantly, we are still here,” said Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

The sounds of drums reverberated throughout the State House Thursday morning ahead of the address heralding in the day’s event in the Hall of Flags as people danced around them in a circle.

The Chiefs also spoke about the history of the Wabanaki Nations in defending the country in conflicts going back to the American Revolution.

“The Penobscot people have lived in this territory for 10,000 years,” said Francis. “We have forever been here and we will forever remain here.”

The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act settled the tribe’s land claim to two-thirds of state in exchange for $81.5 million in funding held in federal trust to purchase tribal lands but denied them of any claims to federal funding other tribes receive.

“Handcuffed by MICSA, the tribes in Maine have been left out of the economic resurgence occurring in the rest of the lower 48 states,” report co-author Joseph Kalt said in a written statement after meeting with lawmakers. “This not only perpetuates poverty and dependence among the Wabanaki, it also represents lost opportunity for all of Maine.”

Chiefs who addressed the House and Senate are Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation; Chief Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik; Chief William Nicholas, Sr., of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkmikuk;  Chief Edward Peter Paul of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs; and Sabattis.

 “This historic State of the Tribes is important, and it can be more than symbolic so long as it foreshadows where the relationship between our governments is headed. Convening for this purpose was about respect, reconciliation, and a commitment on the part of the Maine Legislature to do better. The health, well-being and future of the place we all call home and the people who live here depend on it,” said Senate President Troy Jackson.