July 22, 2020

By Ramona du Houx

Leaders of the Wabanaki tribes in Maine announced a new alliance to build political power and educate Maine residents on the need for full recognition of tribal sovereignty. The Wabanaki Alliance is registered as a 501(c)(4), a social welfare group that can partake in some advocacy and lobbying.

Presently, Democratic lawmakers in the Maine legislature are advocating for their Republican co-workers to return for a truncated session in pass relief bills due to the pandemic and other pressing measures. Among the proposed legislation they would address is a bill to implement the state law changes recommended by the Maine Indian Claims Task Force, which were released in January of 2020.

Bringing Maine Indian tribes back to the legislature has been an objective of Governor Janet Mills. In her first State of State speech she made remarks about the tribes and the Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana spoke. Under Governor Paul LePage the Wabanaki left their seats in the state legislature. While the tribes had representatives in the state house they have never been able to vote on bills that may or may not become law. Rebuilding the bridge that crumbled under LePage’s administration is part of the reason Mills established the Maine Indian Claims Task Force.

“The legislation to look at the amendments to the Land Claims Act of 1980 really sparked this moment of unity with all the tribes in Maine,” Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana said during an online press conference on July 21, 2020. “We all have very different situations and needs and goals, but we were able to identify a lot of the areas where we can work together and advance tribal sovereignty as a whole.”

Native Penobscot in Maine showing how to use a birch bark canoe. Photos by Ramona du Houx

The tribes say that the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Act has been interpreted by the state in a way that has stifled the tribes economically and put the Wabanaki in a category separate from other federally-recognized tribes throughout the country with regard to their sovereignty and the applicability of federal legislation.

“Because of the 1980 Settlement Act the Tribes in Maine have had their sovereignty stripped from them,” reads the group’s website. “The Wabanaki Alliance is not asking for special privileges but fairness by having the same or similar sovereignty as the nearly 500 other tribes across America.”

“Two of our tribes — the Penobscot tribe and Passamaquoddy tribe — were federally recognized in 1976. And for a short few years, we enjoyed the tribal sovereign status equal to that of any other federally-recognized tribe in the country,” Passamaquoddy Vice Chief at Indian Township Darrell Newell said during the press conference. “It also put us on equal footing with the state of Maine. That was dramatically compromised and changed in 1980. The settlement put the state in a special status unlike any other state in the country. The settlement afforded the state of Maine a posture of superiority, an advantage in tribal-state relations.”

The groups website reads, “Native Americans have lived in Maine peacefully for thousands of years. We lived peacefully hunting, fishing and trading among the tribes and living in concert with the land. In the 1600s that all changed when we welcomed visitors who came to the shores of Maine.”