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The Maine legislature is considering adding an office on tribal relations to improve the thorny relationship between the tribes and the state.

This article was originally published in the Maine Morning Star.

House Speaker Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) presented the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday with a proposal for the new office, which would be primarily tasked with monitoring legislation that pertains to the tribes.

“People change in this building every two years,” Talbot Ross said, referring to the State House, “so there’s not enough historical, institutional knowledge in which to sometimes take on such complexities. But this office, really, we believe can serve as a mutually beneficial vehicle for furthering tribal-state affairs.”

The proposal puts this office within the Office of the Secretary of State, which Talbot Ross said is how comparable offices in other states operate. The office would be made up of three staff members and an advisory council appointed by the tribes to guide the staff in its work. In addition to promoting collaboration between state and tribal governments, the office would prioritize education, economic development and write annual reports to track progress on strengthening tribal-state affairs. 

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Talbot Ross envisions the office as a way to usher in a new working relationship between the state and the Wabanaki Nations, which has often been challenged during the ongoing effort to have their full sovereignty recognized by the state. 

Unlike the other 570 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S., tribes in Maine — the Houlton Band of Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, collectively known as the Wabanaki Nations — are treated more like municipalities than sovereign nations. This is because the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act makes it so any federal Indian law that would impact the application of state law does not apply to Maine, unless explicitly stated.

Gov. Janet Mills has opposed sweeping sovereignty reforms for years, while pushing through piecemeal legislation that enshrines certain protections.  

Currently, only one of the four federally recognized tribes in Maine have a representative in the legislature — Passamaquoddy Tribal Ambassador Aaron Dana, who serves on the judiciary committee. In 2015, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes withdrew their legislative representatives, citing the state’s failure to recognize their people’s sovereign rights. While the Passamaquoddy Nation has since sent a representative back, the Penobscot Nation and, since 2019, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians have declined to send representatives. 

In 2017, the Penobscot Nation developed the position of tribal ambassador to fill the void in representation that was left by leaving state government. Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Bryant said the state has taken steps to improve relations over the years, including appointing a senior advisor on tribal affairs to the governor, former Penobscot Tribal Council member Donna Loring, in 2019. 

The legislature is considering adding an office on tribal relations to improve the thorny relationship between the tribes and the state.

House Speaker Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) presented the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday with a proposal for the new office, which would be primarily tasked with monitoring legislation that pertains to the tribes.

“People change in this building every two years,” Talbot Ross said, referring to the State House, “so there’s not enough historical, institutional knowledge in which to sometimes take on such complexities. But this office, really, we believe can serve as a mutually beneficial vehicle for furthering tribal-state affairs.”

The proposal puts this office within the Office of the Secretary of State, which Talbot Ross said is how comparable offices in other states operate. The office would be made up of three staff members and an advisory council appointed by the tribes to guide the staff in its work. In addition to promoting collaboration between state and tribal governments, the office would prioritize education, economic development and write annual reports to track progress on strengthening tribal-state affairs. 

Talbot Ross envisions the office as a way to usher in a new working relationship between the state and the Wabanaki Nations, which has often been challenged during the ongoing effort to have their full sovereignty recognized by the state. 

Unlike the other 570 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S., tribes in Maine — the Houlton Band of Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, collectively known as the Wabanaki Nations — are treated more like municipalities than sovereign nations. This is because the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act makes it so any federal Indian law that would impact the application of state law does not apply to Maine, unless explicitly stated.

Gov. Janet Mills has opposed sweeping sovereignty reforms for years, while pushing through piecemeal legislation that enshrines certain protections.  

Currently, only one of the four federally recognized tribes in Maine have a representative in the legislature — Passamaquoddy Tribal Ambassador Aaron Dana, who serves on the judiciary committee. In 2015, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes withdrew their legislative representatives, citing the state’s failure to recognize their people’s sovereign rights. While the Passamaquoddy Nation has since sent a representative back, the Penobscot Nation and, since 2019, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians have declined to send representatives. 

In 2017, the Penobscot Nation developed the position of tribal ambassador to fill the void in representation that was left by leaving state government. Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Bryant said the state has taken steps to improve relations over the years, including appointing a senior advisor on tribal affairs to the governor, former Penobscot Tribal Council member Donna Loring, in 2019. 

“But, it likely needed more support,” Bryant added. “Having an office and increasing tribal involvement and communication would create a more meaningful and robust collaboration.”

Bryant and other members of the Wabanaki Nations spoke in support of creating a new office on Wednesday. Jill Tompkins, executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and a citizen of the Penobscot Nation described the proposal as “the next logical progression in the positive trend of improving Wabanaki-state relations,” following momentum from the decision to put the state’s treaty obligations back into print in the state constitution. 

Rep. Steve Moriarty (D-Cumberland) questioned how the existing tribal commission that Tompkins leads would relate to this new office. 

“It is not an attempt to replace the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission. That I need to say unequivocally,” Talbot Ross said. “We need to add to our current resources an entity that is responsible for the day-to-day working relationship and improvement in that relationship from the tribes to the state that primarily monitors legislation that will impact the tribes and not put the burden on those tribal governments.”

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows also spoke in support of the proposal and shared her willingness to house the office within her own. 

Existing advisory boards within the secretary of state’s office, such those for the archives and historical records, can serve as models for how the advisory council of the proposed office of tribal affairs could operate, she said. 

“We’re used to working with boards that represent outside entities and have authority and autonomy, which I think is important,” Bellows told the committee. 

One of the three staff positions would be a deputy secretary of state, who would monitor legislation expressly naming any one of the tribes and then communicate that with tribal governments to coordinate their input in the legislative process. 

Bellows advised the committee to make the position a non-partisan one, following suit with deputy secretary positions created for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Corporations, Elections and Commissions.

“I think that’s an important distinction that should be preserved as we move forward,” Bellows said. 

The other two staff positions would be a planning associate as well as an economic development and education coordinator.

In a related bill also heard by the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Talbot Ross proposed requiring the state to notify tribes when laws pertaining to them need to be certified, a task she said the proposed office on tribal relations could help with.

Currently, there is a process for notifying tribal governments when items that touch the Settlement Act need certification but not laws that fall outside the purview of the Settlement Act but nevertheless impact the tribes. 

“For this monitoring, the burden currently resides with the tribes,” Talbot Ross said. “There is no way that that burden should be fully on the tribes nor is it ever fully realized. There is not the amount of staff or resources that any one of the tribal governments have in order to just full-time monitor the activity that’s taking place.”

Both proposals are meant to ensure that progress on tribal-state relations happens in day-to-day work, Talbot Ross said. The office proposal in particular remains a conceptual framework and Talbot Ross said she is open to suggestions, which can be expected in future work sessions.  

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