Bates Students Witnessing Historic State of the Tribes Address

It’s not every day that students get an opportunity to talk to legislators about issues they’re passionate about. On March 16, Bates students joined Harward Center staff and over 200 advocates at the State House in Augusta as part of the Wabanaki Alliance’s Lobby Day and to witness a historic event, “The State of the Tribes Address,” as Maine’s five tribal chiefs addressed the joint assembly of the Maine legislature for the first time in two decades.   

While some students attended out of curiosity and solidarity, others participated as part of Professor Jamie Havercamp’s ENVR 335 course, Indigenous Ecologies, which explores the diverse ways in which Indigenous peoples understand, experience, and respond to contemporary ecological challenges.  While the course explores indigenous ecologies around the world, Professor Havercamp showed the interrelated struggles that Maine’s Wabanaki people face in gaining recognition of their sovereignty and reclaiming jurisdiction over their lands and waters.  

For many students, it was their first time ever visiting a state capitol building and talking to their elected officials. The morning started in a legislative committee room with activists attending a training session about the background of LR 1184, a bill restoring the Wabanaki Nations’ inherent rights to self-govern by implementing the recommendations of the Maine legislature’s bipartisan task force to amend the 1980 Maine Indian Settlement Act (more below).  

After learning more about the history of Maine-Tribal relations, advocates learned how to approach lawmakers about this issue.  We were out into small groups to practice how to have a conversation, and what to do if your legislator needs additional information.  We were ready to find our lawmakers!

Bates students who live on campus are represented by three legislators in the Maine legislature: State Representative Margaret Craven, who represents most of the Bates campus, State Representative Kristen Cloutier, whose district includes John Bertram “J.B.” Hall, and State Senator Peggy Rotundo, whose district includes the City of Lewiston.  We waited outside legislative chambers and approached each legislator on their way to the Maine House and Senate chambers. After introducing the legislators to the students, I stepped back to let the students talk about why they were there, engage in conversation with lawmakers about their positions, and learn more about how to get involved. The energy in the State House was electrifying, as everyday people were talking to legislators alongside policy analysts, professional lobbyists, and legislative staff.

Following our conversation with legislators, our mighty group reconvened at the Welcome Center to watch the live-streamed address of the Wabanaki State of the Tribes address.  It was a powerful experience to be in the same building as this historic address.  The students stayed until the very end, riveted by the stories of historical challenges and the hopes for a unified future.

Understanding History of Maine-Tribal Relations

At the heart of the tribal sovereignty issue in Maine is that the four Wabanaki tribes – Mi’kmaq Nation, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Penobscot Nation – do not receive the same federal recognition and status that the other 574 federally recognized tribes have on criminal jurisdiction, land use and natural resources, tax and trust land authority. Instead, the Wabanaki are governed by the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which empowers the state government to block federal Indian policy in Maine. As the Harvard Report released last year argues, the economic and governmental capacities of the Wabanaki Nations have been stunted, going as far as to describe the Maine tribes as “stark economic underperformers relative to the other tribes in the Lower 48 states.”

The Path to Policy Change:

Since 2018, political momentum to address the issue of equity and tribal sovereignty has been growing in the Maine legislature. In the 129th legislative session, a Task Force was convened with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, tribal chiefs and representatives to review the original 1980 Settlement Act to make consensus recommendations to the Legislature regarding suggested changes. The Task Force was charged with submitting a report to the Judiciary Committee to include its findings, consensus-based recommendations, and suggested legislation. The Task Force ultimately published its findings in January 2020, outlining 22 key recommendations for changes in Maine law in the areas of alternative dispute resolution in tribal-state collaboration, criminal jurisdiction, hunting and fishing on tribal lands, land use and natural resources, taxing authority, gaming, civil jurisdiction, federal law provisions, and trust land acquisition. You can read the full report here.  

In 2022, the Maine Legislature  was close to passing LD 1626, a law that would adopt the recommendations of the 2020 Task Force. Due to opposition from Governor Janet Mills, LD 1626 was never enacted. Renewed energy from bipartisan lawmakers raises the prospect of LR 1184 passing the Maine House and Senate, but the question remains whether there will be enough support to override what will likely be a veto from Governor Mills. In a recent Op-Ed in the Press Herald, Chief Legal Counsel to Governor Mills, Jerry Reid, shared the areas where Governor Mills and tribal nations have been able to achieve collaboration during her tenure.  

When LR 1184 becomes a published legislative document, we anticipate high interest from the campus community in engaging with the legislative process. The first step after the document is published is that the bill will be assigned a committee and scheduled for a public hearing. There are multiple avenues to get involved on tribal sovereignty or other public policy issues.  Contact me, Jenna Vendil, at for more information on how to get involved!

Current Bates faculty and staff members who would like to participate in a learning group in Indigenous Studies can consider joining the “Taking Responsibility – Learning Group” for faculty-staff. Bates College is situated on the stolen homelands of the Amoscoggan peoples, whose descendants now live among the Wabanaki peoples, including the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaq peoples. In an effort to take responsibility for our impact in the occupation of stolen homelands, we meet regularly to learn about current and historical issues that impact indigenous people.  For more information, please contact Daphne Comeau –, Professor Joseph Hall –, or Sylvia Gnieser-Castonguay –