Indigenous Tribes in Maine look for sovereignty

Published: May. 26, 2021 at 7:52 PM EDT|Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 7:53 PM EDT
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Houlton, Maine (WAGM) - Indigenous tribes in Maine are working in the legislature to have the same rights as tribes in other States. Rhian Lowndes found out why the state’s relationship with indigenous communities is so different, and what is being done to change that.

The federal government grants native tribes sovereignty, meaning they have the right to their own government and justice system. In 1980, the Maine Indian Settlement Act recognized the Passamaquoddy, the Penobscot, and the Maliseets as municipalities of Maine, with language stating that federal rights granted to indigenous peoples after 1980 would not be applied in Maine unless specifically made applicable to the state.

“Within the land claim settlement act, our relationship is a little different from say the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot. The state of Maine doesn’t have the right to make laws explicitly for the Maliseet however in the federal legislature does say that that we fall under state jurisdiction...So we’re at year 41 with no jurisdictional agreement so that’s why we’re at the state, looking to see how we can expand and have access to those rights that are inherent to us as a tribe,” said Chief Sabattis.

In 2019 the current task force, created with representatives from tribes, the judiciary, the governor’s office, and the AG’s office, submitted a report recommending changes to the settlement act.

“From those recommendations, a bill was crafted and then over the last couple of years, we’ve gone through a couple sessions...We had a lot of momentum before covid and really were able to have a lot of in-person meetings and were able to explain what this bill meant,” said Chief Sabattis.

Chief Sabattis says there are misconceptions about the Band’s intentions. She’s heard concerns about the Maliseet’s use of the land, particularly related to gaming. She says the band has a history of protecting the environment, and that people shouldn’t fear a large casino marring the Aroostook countryside.

“It’s not something that could be economically supported here...our sister nation in Canada have modest facilities that are two stories and they’re able to do a lot and they’re able to supplement their government revenues and supplement their people and create jobs.”

Sabattis says that federal rights and tribal sovereignty would allow the Band to be self-sufficient and ensure rights that specifically support health, social services, and housing for indigenous tribes.

The bill, says Sabattis, is about being treated equally to the 570 other tribes across the nation.

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