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The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the Implementing ActHeadline3

Signing the Settlement ActCourtesy of Reuben “Butch” Phillips.

"It’s important to distinguish sovereignty- there is the federal definition, but superseding that is our sovereignty, and that is original or inherent sovereignty.  You can’t separate that, just like you can’t separate our DNA from who we are.  So long as we have our DNA this will be so.  My grandma said, ‘We aren’t them, and we don’t want to be them and that’s ok.’  The state and federal government can’t define our sovereignty.  All tribal people need to hold this dear to our hearts and not relinquish that."
-Barry Dana, Penobscot

Passamaquoddy confront loggersPassamaquoddies from Indian Township confront loggers from Georgia Pacific in 1968, forcing them to stop harvesting on land claimed by the tribe.  As a result of negotiations with the tribe, Georgia Pacific agrees to hire three all-Indian crews to carry out harvesting in the area. Bangor Daily News file photo by Beal.

In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (the Settlement Act).  This unique agreement was reached between the state, the federal government, and Maliseet, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes over the tribes’ claims that 2/3rds of the state of Maine was illegally taken.  The Settlement Act broke new ground and was the largest cash settlement awarded at that time to an American Indian tribe.

Lucy Nicolar votingLucy Nicolar, Penobscot, is the first to vote on Indian Island in 1955, after Native Americans were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1954.  Native people were not given the right to vote in Maine state elections until 1967.  Nicolar was a strong advocate of voting rights for the Wabanaki. Bangor Daily News file photo by Danny Maher.

The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes each received $26.8 million for the purpose of buying back more than 300,000 acres of land from the state and paper companies.  The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians received $900,000 to acquire land.  The settlement also included an additional $13.5 million for the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot to be held in a federal trust account, from which the tribes may draw interest for use without restriction.  One million dollars was earmarked to fund projects that benefit tribal elders.  The Maliseet did not receive a trust fund.

Route 1 Sit-in

Peter Dana Point's tribal governor, John Stevens, and Regina Nicholas participate in a sit-in on U.S. Route 1 to protest the cutoff of state benefits, particularly milk for children and medical help for the elderly, 1969.  Bangor Daily News photo.

In exchange, the tribes dropped their claim to 12.5 million acres of land, and agreed to abide by most state laws and provide services similar to a municipality.  The settlement also stipulated that any federal Indian policies enacted after 1980 which “would affect or preempt the laws or the application of the laws of the State of Maine…shall not apply within the State of Maine, unless (the) Federal law is specifically made applicable within the State of Maine.”   Wabanaki leaders contend that this last stipulation was added in the 11th hour, without thorough discussion from the signatories.

Within the Settlement Act, an agreement between the state and the tribes called the Maine Implementing Act was enacted by the Maine legislature to create the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC) as a means for settling disputes that might arise from issues left unresolved by the settlement.  The thirteen member Commission consists of six members appointed by the State, two by the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, two by the Pasamaquoddy Tribe, and two by the Penobscot Indian Nation. The thirteenth, who is the chairperson, is selected by the twelve appointees.


The Penobscot have pulled their representatives from the commission, and the chair of the commission, Paul Bisulca, Penobscot, recently declined to serve another term because of the “state’s unwillingness to honor agreements that were meant to affirm and enhance the Wabanaki nation’s sovereignty.”

The Micmac Settlement Act

The Micmac were not part of the 1980 Settlement Act because “historical documentation of the Micmac presence in Maine was not available at that time.” The Band petitioned for federal recognition, and won in 1991 “to settle all claims by the Aroostook Band of Micmacs resulting from the Band’s omission from the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, and for other purposes.”

The purpose of the Act was to “grant the Aroostook Band of Micmacs federal recognition, provide members of the Band with services the federal government provides to all federally recognized tribes, place $900,000 in a land acquisition fund, and ratify the Micmac Settlement Act, which defines the relationship between the state of Maine and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.”  According to the Micmac, this last clause was never ratified and the Band does not have a relationship with the state of Maine, however they maintain their federal recognition.