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Youth Climate Activists Call on the Maine Legislature & Governor to Honor Tribal Sovereignty

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

Statement from Maine Youth for Climate Justice in support of L.D. 1626, the Tribal Sovereignty bill, by Julia St.Clair. MYCJ members Andrew Blunt, Cassie Cain, Becca Ferguson, Audrey Hufnagel, and Ezra Sassaman contributed to this piece.

Maine Youth for Climate Justice (MYCJ) stands in solidarity with the Wabanaki Tribes in support of L.D. 1626 “An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act.” We are a coalition of 400 youth from across the state who are fighting for bold climate action and a just transition to a livable future in Maine. Supporting tribal sovereignty is an integral part of our work to center and uplift the voices of folks who have been historically excluded from narratives around environmental activism and climate change.

At the core of MYCJ’s work is climate justice; we acknowledge that the climate crisis is caused by systemic failures and forms of oppression, and disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. Colonialism is at the root of climate change, so when combatting the climate crisis, we need to simultaneously address colonial structures and the environmental injustices they have caused.

The place now called Maine is the homeland of the Wabanaki people and they have stewarded this land since time immemorial. However, when it comes to the decisions that impact their lands, waters, and livelihoods, the Wabanaki community has been denied an equal seat at the table and often excluded from decision-making processes altogether.

The State of Maine has continually prevented Wabanaki Tribes from exercising their sovereign right to regulate their lands and waters, resulting in many forms of environmental injustice, including a lack of clean drinking water on the Passamaquoddy reservation at Sipayik (Pleasant Point). Additionally, paper mills, chemical companies, and the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill all pollute the Penobscot River, which has made it impossible for the Penobscot Nation to exercise their sustenance fishing rights. Restoring tribal sovereignty and self-determination over land use and natural resources is an essential step in beginning to address these harms perpetuated for generations against the Wabanaki Tribes.

Alongside these environmental injustices, the Wabanaki Tribes face a challenging and imminent climate reality. They are on the frontlines of the climate crisis as climate change disproportionately affects Indigenous peoples, people of color, and low-income communities. For example, increasingly erratic flooding and warming waters are already fundamentally altering waterways that the Wabanaki community has historically relied on for food and travel. Additionally, the emerald ash borer, an invasive species of beetle whose population has increased with a warming climate, is threatening the growth of ash trees which are used in Wabanaki basket weaving and other culturally significant practices. In facing the challenges of the climate crisis, it is absolutely essential that the Wabanaki people and all Indigenous peoples have full sovereignty, access to resources, discretion, and decision-making power to adapt to and address these impending changes.

L.D. 1626 would restore tribes’ sovereign rights to regulate hunting, fishing, natural resources, and land use on tribal lands in Maine. The State has withheld these rights from the Wabanaki people since the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement and Implementing Act passed in 1980.

Within the constrictive terms of this Act, the State of Maine treats tribes as municipalities rather than sovereign nations and acts as an intermediary between them and the federal government. Maine is the only state in the U.S. to subject federally-recognized tribes within its borders to this form of paternalism, obstructing the nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government that the 570 other federally recognized tribes have.

Public pressure for tribal sovereignty is at its peak. Thousands of Mainers of all backgrounds and dozens of organizations across the state submitted testimony in support of L.D. 1626. This legislation has now passed the Maine House and Maine State Senate with impassioned testimony in support from legislators. L.D. 1626 is the result of years of work and it is well past time for the Implementing Act to be amended and for tribal sovereignty to be restored. Legislators have heard their constituents and this bill will soon make its way to the Governor’s desk.

We call on Governor Janet Mills to reconsider her ongoing opposition to this measure and instead stand in solidarity with the tribes. The Governor must recognize, restore, and respect the Wabanaki Tribes’ inherent sovereignty. If Governor Mills will not do this, we ask our legislators to summon the morality to override Mills’s veto and recognize and restore sovereignty to the tribes in Maine. No more compromises, no more waiting, sovereignty is not up for negotiation.

This is an issue of fairness, equity, and justice. As a coalition of youth fighting for climate justice, we must advocate for a future where the inherent rights of Wabanaki Tribes are respected. We stand in solidarity with the Wabanaki Tribes and urge Governor Mills to support L.D. 1626.

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