Published: July 7, 2023

Tribal sovereignty bill falters after Maine lawmakers fail to override governor veto

Maine lawmakers failed Thursday to override the governor’s veto of a bill that would have expanded the sovereignty of  Native American Tribes in the state by ensuring more federal laws apply to them.

It’s a defeat for the tribes, which are bound by a land claims settlement that puts them on different footing then the nation’s other 570 federally recognized tribes.

Both chambers had voted to enact the bill with big-enough majorities to override the veto, but some House members backtracked under pressure by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. She contends the bill was vague and would lead to lengthy and costly litigation in coming years.

The 84-57 House vote fell short of a two-thirds majority after tribal Rep. Aaron Dana, a Passamaquoddy, implored lawmakers to vote for the tribes, saying they want the same thing that the nation’s Founding Fathers wanted.

"We seek equality. We seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we seek the liberty and the pursuit of happiness under a relationship where we have the access to the laws passed by Congress to make native communities safer and healthier,” he said. "Nothing more, nothing less.”

Tribal leaders criticized the governor, calling her an impediment to progress, while offering thanks to lawmakers for their support.

"It’s extremely disappointing that the governor insists on keeping her thumb on the tribes and the Legislature. She clearly will not be deterred from using any authority she has to oppress the tribes,” said Chief Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik.

Mills, for her part, said she remains willing to work with the tribes to ensure they’re not excluded from benefits generally available to other federally recognized tribes, and called for a "collaborative, respectful approach” that she said has been successful in the past.

It was an important bill for tribes in Maine who’ve long regretted trading some of their rights to the state under an $81.5 million settlement that was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

The agreement for the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet, along with a 1991 agreement for the Mi’kmaq, allows them to be treated much like municipalities subject to state law instead of dealing directly with the federal government like other tribes. Over the years, that relationship has led to disagreements.

The governor says just a handful of federal laws don’t apply to the tribes in Maine — such as the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act and the federal law governing disaster response, for example.

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