AUGUSTA, Maine -- The Maine House voted Thursday to give the state’s tribes the same rights enjoyed by Native Americans elsewhere across the country, a first step in an effort to uphold the tribes’ sovereignty.
The 81-55 tally marked the first legislative vote in the process of restoring rights forfeited in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which made the tribes subject to state law.
The vote, which tribal leaders watched from the gallery, followed emotional testimony from supporters who said the change was long overdue.
“The time to change this is now, for the Wabanaki tribes rightly deserve and should enjoy the same rights, privileges, power and immunities as other federally recognized tribes,” said Rep. Rena Newell, a nonvoting Passamaquoddy representative to the Legislature.
Some critics, however, pointed out that there could be unforeseen difficulties from the change. As it stands, tribal reservations in Maine are treated like municipalities under state law.
The historic vote came hours after the Senate gave final approval to a separate bill allowing the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point to regulate its own drinking water.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has concerns about parts of the bill, including conflicts between jurisdictions.
Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, said she was concerned the tribal lands in Maine are not contiguous, and that there could be conflicts over environmental rules in towns across the state. Future lawmakers will be bound by any mistakes in the new language, she said.
“There are serious unknown consequences on natural resources and wildlife management, land and water access, and liability,” she said.
Most lawmakers spoke about righting a historical wrong that dates back more than four decades.
The Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet traded some rights to the state authority under an $81.5 million settlement that was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. The Mi’kmaq are subject to similar terms under their own agreement, adopted in 1991.
In the years since, the state and tribes have butted heads on environmental, fish and wildlife rules. And the state’s tribes have not benefited from changes in federal law, their supporters said.
Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, Maine, became emotional as he spoke of the need to adopt the law to ensure tribes are treated the same as others, especially all they've endured since the arrival of Europeans who took Native Americans' land and killed many of them.
“When we steal something of this magnitude, we have to give a little bit of it back to make it right," he said.
Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said the proposal was the result of years of work.
“Throughout the history of Maine and the United States, we have amended our laws over and over again to correct past wrongs, improve our democracy and protect the rights of those previously left behind. Let 2022 be the year that we correct the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act,” she said.
Associated Press writer Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed to this report.