Maine aims to restore 19th century tribal obligations to its constitution. Voters will make the call

25 July 2023

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Voters in Maine will likely be the ones to decide whether to restore long removed language about the state’s obligations to Native American tribes to printed versions of its constitution.

The Maine Legislature is poised to give its final approval on Tuesday to a proposal to restore the language that requires Maine to honor treaties the state inherited from Massachusetts when it became its own state more than two centuries ago. The language has always applied, but was removed from printed versions of the constitution in 1876.

Statewide voters would have to approve of the change to the constitution for it to take place. The date of the referendum has not yet been set.

The restoration of the language to the printed constitution would improve transparency and illuminate Maine’s debts to Native American tribes, said Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross. The language is not in the official online version of the Maine Constitution either, though it can be read elsewhere, such as in the Maine State Library.

“For decades, the history of the state’s treatment of the Wabanaki people has been concealed and disregarded – even in our most formal and guiding documents,” Ross said. “Transparency is critical to truly have an elected government that decides on how we live, what the norms of our society are, and ultimately who gets to participate.”

Lawmakers easily approved the proposal earlier in the legislative session and are scheduled to take a final vote on Tuesday, which could be the final day of the session.

The language compels Maine to “assume and perform all the duties and obligations of” Massachusetts upon becoming a state, which it did in 1820. It does not make reference to specific obligations.

Lawmakers are preparing to send the constitutional change to voters at a time when tribes in the state are seeking greater autonomy. The legislature voted in June to let most federal laws apply to Wabanaki tribes in a move designed to put them on equal footing with other federally recognized tribes in the U.S.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills opposed that proposal and vetoed it, saying she feared it could lead to lawsuits. Mills also opposed the restoration of the treaty language to the printed constitution. Her office said in testimony that the change had the potential to create confusion.

Tribal groups have urged passage of the restoration of the language and characterized it as overdue. John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Wabanaki Alliance, said in testimony that restoration “would make our Maine Constitution more transparent increasing the likelihood current and future residents of this state do understand the obligations of the State of Maine to the Wabanaki Nations.”

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