The Universal Notebook: Mills opposes tribes, fellow Democrats

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If Gov. Janet Mills fails to win reelection, her loss may well hinge on her stance against tribal sovereignty, something most Democrats favor. 

I am concerned there is a very real chance that Mills will be swept out of office on Nov. 8. That will depend in large part on how great the mid-term backlash is against Democratic incumbents, which in turn will depend on how popular the authoritarian Trump-LePage wing of the GOP is in the wake of the Jan. 6 Republican attempt to overthrow the U.S. government.

Edgar Allen BeemAfter eight years of LePage’s bullying, progressives were all relieved when Mills took office, but even then we knew that she was not a progressive Democrat. In light of her opposition to public power and greater sovereignty for Maine’s Wabanaki Nation, we are reminded that Mills’ position on some issues is not all that different from LePage’s.

Tribal sovereignty should be a slam-dunk for a Democrat. Maine’s federally recognized tribes do not have the same rights as the 570 other Native American tribes because of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, an agreement in which the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Houlton Band of Maliseets signed away their sovereign rights in exchange for $81.5 million with which to purchase ancestral lands.

The argument you often hear from anti-tribal sovereignty folks is that “a deal is a deal,” that the tribes agreed to the terms of the settlement. But that does not mean that the terms were fair and equitable, which they most certainly were not. Since 1980, more than 150 federal laws have been passed benefiting Native American tribes, but Maine’s tribes are excluded from them because the state treats the tribes like municipalities rather than sovereign nations under the land claims act.

Even if the tribes understood what they were signing in 1980 (and I don’t believe they did) the exclusionary status of Maine’s tribes is wrong. There have been several efforts to correct the inequity – the major one at the state level being LD 1626, a bill that would enact changes recommended in 2020 by the Maine Indian Claims Task Force to provide the tribes with greater control over criminal justice, taxation, gambling, fishing and hunting, and natural resource regulations on tribal lands. 

LD 1626 received strong bipartisan support in the Maine House (97-40) and the Maine Senate (22-13). Some 1,500 people spoke in favor of LD 1626. One of the few who spoke against it was the legal counsel to the governor, and Mills threatened a veto.

As attorney general Mills opposed efforts by the tribes to regulate water quality, going so far as to join a Washington state lawsuit in 2018 that opposed native fishing rights. In 2021, Gov. Mills vetoed a bill that would have allowed Maine tribes to operate gambling casinos. 

Now Mills opposes both LD 1626 and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, which would also address some of the inequities perpetrated by Maine officials back in 1980.

Mills’ history of opposition to tribal sovereignty will play well in Democrat Golden’s 2nd Congressional District and among conservatives who would never vote for her anyway, but the statewide Democratic base supports justice for Maine’s tribes. Some, myself included, may even elect not to vote on Nov. 8 if Mills blocks LD 1626.

It now looks, however, as though sly Democrats may have killed the bill by failing to fund it, a slick trick to avoid making Mills look bad.

When it comes to Maine’s tribes, however, she already does.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.