Wabanaki sovereignty would benefit all Maine residents, study finds

The consistent underdevelopment of the Wabanaki tribes in Maine has risen to the level of UN human rights violations, argues a Harvard scholar.
Logo for the Wabanaki Alliance featuring the names of the four tribes in Maine: Penobscot, Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy.
The Harvard study found that MICSA is solely responsible for the ongoing poverty on the reservations in the state.

Maine is leaving more than $300 million a year on the table and contributing to child poverty rates of up to 76.9 percent in tribal households by continuing to uphold the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 (MICSA).

The consistent underdevelopment of the Wabanaki tribes in the state due to MICSA has risen to the level of UN human rights violations. These findings were outlined by Joseph Kalt of the Harvard Kennedy School on April 11 during an online presentation hosted by the Maine Philanthropy Center.

Kalt, who is co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, based his claims on a study he co-authored alongside Amy Medford and Jonathan Taylor, both of whom are also with the project. The study, Economic and Social Impacts of Restrictions on the Applicability of Federal Indian Policies to the Wabanaki Nations in Maine, was released in December 2022. 

Passed in 1980, MICSA effectively grants the state “a de facto veto power over policies” pertaining to the tribes within the state, Kalt said. “The consequence of this is the stunted (economic) development of the Wabanaki.”

The Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, which was created as part of MICSA, found in 2012 that MICSA and the accompanying Maine Employment Act “are in serious nonconformance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, both in the process leading up to their enactment and in how they have been implemented,” said John Dieffenbacher-Krall of the Wabanaki Alliance during the presentation.

The acts “have created structural inequities that have resulted in conditions that have risen to the level of human rights violations,” the 2012 MITSC stated in a report to the UN.

The state legislature has been seriously considering changes to MICSA since at least 2020 when a bipartisan task force developed several recommendations that would move toward tribal sovereignty across multiple spheres. However, when a tribal sovereignty bill was proposed last year, Governor Janet Mills threatened to veto it in a bid to avoid “confrontation,” Mills wrote in a letter to lawmakers and tribal leaders.

In no uncertain terms, the Harvard study found that MICSA is solely responsible for the ongoing poverty on the reservations in the state. In addition to keeping tribal members in poverty, the study contended that MICSA’s existence is suppressing the development of more than 2,700 jobs, most of which would be held by non-Natives and most of which would be located in Washington County, one of the poorest counties in the state.

A look outside of Maine

In the 1970s, President Nixon passed a series of legislative measures that granted Indigenous tribes in the United States the right to self-rule. By giving tribes the ability to self-manage, Nixon hoped to elevate them out of the status of being the poorest group in the country and to alleviate widespread child poverty.

In the few years after the passage of the new federal policies, progress was slow, Kalt said. But now, hundreds of tribes are managing their own court systems, taxes, police departments, schools, water and sewer, parks and recreation, and so on.

“These policies of self-determination have produced a 30-year economic boom,” Kalt said.

Economic growth on Indian reservations increased by 61 percent between 1989 and 2018, compared to 17 percent for the US as a whole. While “there is still poverty” on reservations, Kalt shared that child poverty on reservations has gone down from 57 percent in 1969 to 23.4 percent in 2020. In the US as a whole, child poverty has increased from 10.8 to 13.6 between 1969 and 2018.

In another measure of success, Indians living on reservations are no longer the poorest group of Americans.

“This is quite a dramatic improvement in the lives of the families on reservations,” Kalt said.

“It’s not all about gaming”

Kalt pointed out a common misconception people have when hearing about tribes’ economic success: “The easy thing to think is that it’s all about casinos.” That’s not the case, however. “It’s not all about gaming.”

To demonstrate, Kalt shared that approximately half of tribes ventured into gambling after Nixon’s policies were passed. Between 1989-99, “casino tribes” saw 36 percent increased income, while non-casino tribes saw 30 percent increased income. For the US as a whole in that time period, income grew by 11 percent. Both types of tribes, in other words, “grew about three times faster,” than the US as a whole, Kalt said.

Casinos and gambling are only one aspect of successful tribal ventures, Kalt continued. “Today, we see a very diverse economy emerging across Indian country, with hotels, restaurants, golf courses, bowling alleys, museums, construction firms… farms and fish processing plants, banks, and so on.”

Not only are tribes increasingly economically diversified outside of Maine, they’ve become “the economic and public service anchors of entire regions,” particularly in rural areas.

Kalt referenced the Potawatomi of Shawnee, Oklahoma to highlight this point. In the late 1970s, the tribe possessed only 2.5 acres of land, $500 in the bank, a house trailer, and three cars. Since then, the tribe has developed a major banking franchise and a vertically integrated grocery store complex. Along with being the largest employer in the Shawnee area, the tribe is reclaiming its culture and its language as a direct result of its regained self-agency.

“It’s not about federal spending”

Another common misconception is that tribes are doing better because they have access to ongoing federal spending. Again, however, this is not the case, Kalt asserts.

“It’s not federal spending itself that generates economic development,” Kalt said. “We’ve found that tribes are becoming increasingly fiscally independent.” Tribes across the country are earning enough through their economic ventures to overshadow federal contributions, in some cases significantly.

Time after time, programs implemented within tribal country that are funded by the tribes themselves are more successful than federally-funded programs, Kalt added. “Simply turning the power of local self-rule over to the tribes has been the key to the economic boom going on… outside of Maine.”

In many cases, tribes that took over operations on their territory, such as timber harvesting, are able to produce a consistently higher yield while negatively impacting the environment around them much less. “They are better stewards of their forest and wildlife resources than the state governments or the federal government,” Kalt said.

Social services also see dramatic improvement, with tribes who are now operating their own healthcare services experiencing lower wait times and better client satisfaction. Similarly, tribes who run their own housing affairs have more available units under better repair. Tribes that manage their own education have higher standardized scores and graduation rates.

Kalt shared the story of the Choctaw of Mississippi as a second case study. The descendants of refugees who hid from Andrew Jackson’s forced Trail of Tears march to Oklahoma, the Choctaw settled in the remote swamps of the state — “the last place you’d expect an economic boom,” Kalt said.

After Nixon passed the policies of self-determination, the Choctaw went into plastics. As a result, the tribe flourished economically, and they reinvested it back into the community. Within 15 years, between 1985 and 2001, the life expectancy of Choctaw tribal members increased by 20 years in what Kalt believes may be a world record.

“We find that shifting accountability to local decision makers — the local tribal government officials — is dramatically improving performance,” Kalt said. Tribes that have access to federal funds but not self-determination policies, such as those in Alaska, Canada, and Maine, continue to have “tremendous poverty persisting,” by contrast.

Maine’s “shocking” statistics

Unlike most of the 574 tribes in the US, Maine’s five tribes — the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy at Sipayik, Passamaquoddy at Motahkomikuk, and Penobscot — have not prospered over the past three decades.

While other tribes saw incomes increase by 61 percent between 1989 to 2018, Maine tribes saw theirs increase by only 9 percent — or just about half than the average improvement in the US during that time.

“This is shocking,” Kalt said. “What you see is the persistence of poverty, with very low rates of income.” 

At Motahkomikuk and Sipayik — two of the state’s reservations, both in Washington County — the average income is $14,435 and $13,741, respectively. The Mi’kmaq average $11,431 per person, while the Maliseet average only $11,320. The Penobscot fare better at $18,809, which is still far behind the state average of $34,593.

Child poverty rates paint an equally grim picture. Children at Motahkomikuk experience poverty at a rate of 40.2 percent; at Sipayik, it’s 58.3 percent. (Tribal households off of reservations also struggle; the Penobscot experience 45.7 percent, the Maliseet, 61.2 percent, and the Mi’kmaq, 76.9 percent). Maine as a whole is much lower at 15.1 percent.

“Where we’ve seen the child poverty rates cut for other tribes, that has not happened in the state of Maine,” Kalt summarized.

While some are inclined to point to Maine itself as an economically challenged place in general, that’s not the case, as Kalt describes. The residents of Maine saw their incomes increase by 25 percent between 1989 and 2018, much higher than the US average of 17 percent.

Others point to the rurality of the tribes in Maine as a possible culprit for the lack of their economic gain. However, all of the tribal communities in Maine are “at the bottom of the barrel” economically and in terms of their ability to offer full time jobs to their residents, “regardless of rurality.”

MICSA is the commonality

With gambling, access to federal funds, and regional economics ruled out as possible contributors to the underdevelopment of Maine tribes in comparison to those outside of Maine, the leading commonality is MICSA.

Without self-governance, tribes in the state experience uncertainty and face costly conflicts and expensive litigation when they attempt to implement projects or start new operations. Without tribal court, tribal members are forced to commute long distances to hearings or face penalties.

“The impacts of this are often invisible,” Kalt said, with tribal governments being underdeveloped and unable to meet the needs of their residents.

“The impediment is not that the tribes don’t have access to federal funding, it’s that they don’t have self-governance,” Kalt emphasized.

If MICSA were repealed and the Maine tribes were able to close the gap of inequality, it would result in about 1,400 full time jobs sponsored by the tribes themselves. These jobs would be “very impactful” for the regions they would be in, Kalt said, making the tribes leading employers in Washington and Lincoln counties.

Further, these full time workers would spend a portion of their pay in the local communities. All in all, Kalt predicts as much as $330 million a year in spillover economic activity, including an additional 456 Indian jobs and 2,287 more spillover jobs. “The vast majority of jobs supported would be non-Indian jobs,” Kalt said.

“Money is being left on the table because of MICSA,” Kalt said, adding that the additional revenue would be for all of the governments involved, state, tribal, and federal.

“You’re never very well off if your neighbors are not well off. You are not richer if your neighbors are poorer,” Kalt said in closing. “Everyone stands to gain, Wabanakis and non-Wabanakis, from allowing the Wabanaki nations to take advantage of the full powers of self-governing that other tribes in the United States enjoy.”

To follow the efforts of the movement for Wabanaki Sovereignty, visit wabanakialliance.com and find the Wabanaki Alliance on social media.

Sign up to receive The Maine Monitor’s free newsletter, Downeast Monitor, that focuses on Washington County news. This article is co-published by The Maine Monitor and the Quoddy Tides.


Lura Jackson

Lura Jackson is the managing editor of the Quoddy Tides in Eastport, and has written for various Maine publications since 2013. She is the author of Images of America: Eastport (2022) and Images of America: Calais (2020).
Previous Post
A black and white Lewiston Police cruiser sits outside a local business during a community event.

Lewiston police investigate a resident’s encounter with officer

Next Post
Phil Duggan sits at his desk while operating ham radio controls.

Ham radio operators air a grievance: Leave our hobby alone

The Maine Monitor has five newsletters to keep you informed about Maine.