Restoring fairness for the Wabanaki requires Congressional action, too

The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Nation, and Mi’kmaq Nation are recognized under federal law. But unlike the 570 other federally recognized tribes, these four tribes in Maine – collectively known as the Wabanaki nations – are unfairly excluded from the very laws and programs Congress creates to benefit Indigenous peoples. Contrary to the aims of these federal programs, the intentional exclusion of the Wabanaki tribes has resulted in increased injustice and economic harm to Indigenous people in Maine. A new bill sponsored by Representative Jared Golden would help restore fairness. HR 6707, the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, would ensure that tribes in Maine are included in future federal laws and programs intended to benefit all federally recognized tribes.

The exclusion of the Wabanaki tribes is a direct result of the restrictive language of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) and its corresponding Maine legislation, the Maine Implementing Act (MIA). When ratified by Congress through MICSA in 1980, MIA diminished the tribes’ sovereign claims and reduced their standing to that akin to municipalities. Even more harmful, MICSA contains unusual provisions that block most federal Indian law – past, present, and future – from applying to tribes in Maine if the federal law affects the application of Maine law. The Wabanaki are the only federally recognized tribes excluded in this way.

Since 1980, Wabanaki tribes as well as their surrounding rural communities have lost out on the benefits of more than 150 federal laws1 including the Violence Against Women Act, which allows tribes to prosecute non-Indian defendants for domestic violence crimes against tribal members within tribal territory; the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which allows tribes to hire urgently-needed medical professionals licensed in another state; the Stafford Act, which allows tribes to directly seek disaster relief and emergency assistance, and the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which authorize tribes to assume primary regulatory authority for administering federal environmental programs on tribal lands. In each of these cases, Maine weaponized MICSA’s restrictive language to wage lengthy and expensive legal battles to deny Wabanaki tribes both the funds and authority granted to all other recognized tribes.

A preliminary analysis suggests that exclusion from federal grant programs cost Wabanaki tribes an average of at least $1.69 million each year in lost funding. Those funds, targeted to support agriculture, infrastructure, education, transportation, justice systems, and food security can never be reclaimed. The state also used MICSA to repeatedly block tribal efforts to launch gaming enterprises while allowing non-tribal commercial operators to reap almost $147 million in gross revenue in 2021.2 Tribal gaming authorized through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is currently the largest generator of revenue in Indian Country. Nationwide in 2019, Indian gaming generated more than $34 billion in gross revenue.3

In 2019 the Maine legislature authorized a task force to review MIA and recommend consensus changes. The task force, which included among its members chiefs of each of the four Wabanaki tribes as well as legislators who voted to pass MIA back in 1980, submitted 22 consensus recommendations.4 Addressing the inability of the Wabanaki to access the benefits of federal legislation is among them. Most of the other recommendations are included in LD 1626, currently awaiting funding approval in the Maine legislature and the support of Governor Mills to become law. Addressing the inequity endured for generations by the Wabanaki requires bold action in both Augusta and Congress.

Rep. Golden’s Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act updates MICSA to allow the Wabanaki tribes to benefit from future laws enacted to benefit Indian tribes. The bill also allows the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to apply to the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and Mi’kmaq Nation in the same way that the law applies to the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe. These changes represent an important step towards equalizing the federal treatment of Wabanaki tribes with that of tribes in the rest of the country. The Maine Center for Economic Policy joins the leaders of the four Wabanaki tribes as well as a coalition of more than 90 Maine organizations representing tens of thousands of Mainers to support this bill as well as LD 1626. Together we understand that improving tribal-state relations, reducing costly legal battles, and providing tools for prosperity benefit all who live in Maine.


[1] Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act

[2] American Gaming Association 2021 State of Play Report

[3] 2019 Indian Gross Gaming Revenues of $34.6B Set Industry Record and Show a 2.5% Increase | National Indian Gaming Commission (

[4] Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act