Colby Hosts Discussion about Tribal Sovereignty

Featuring Indigenous leaders and Maine lawmakers, the discourse was part of a revamped Cotter Series dedicated to current events

Maulian Bryant, Penobscot Nation Ambassador, and Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), take a moment to reflect during last week's panel discussion about tribal sovereignty. The discussion, hosted by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, was part of the William R. and Linda K. Cotter Discourse and Deliberation Series. Other panelists were Aaron Dana, Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative to the Maine House of Representatives, and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.
By Abigail CurtisPhotography by Michael G. Seamans
October 9, 2023

Wabanaki and Maine legislative leaders came to campus last week to discuss tribal sovereignty, an issue that has been at the forefront of state politics.  

The conversation, which drew a crowd of more than 150 students, faculty, and community members to Ostrove Auditorium in the Diamond Building, was part of the William K. and Linda R. Cotter Discourse and Deliberation Series. 

Hosted by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, it was one of two campus events leading up to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Earlier in the week, another large crowd, including 140 students, came to Ostrove to listen to Michael-Cory Francis Hinton, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and a partner with the Portland-based law firm Drummond Woodsum. He discussed the Indigenous roots of lacrosse, called “The Creator’s Game.” That talk was a partnership between Goldfarb, the Athletics Department and the lacrosse teams, and the Center for the Arts and Humanities.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the Goldfarb Center, said the tribal sovereignty topic is timely and important to the tribes and the state. 

“Historically in this country, many groups have been excluded. But we particularly want to acknowledge that Black and Indigenous voices have most often not been at the table when public policy decisions are being made,” she said. “We looked at [this discussion] as an opportunity for us to continue that conversation, not just to deepen our understanding, but to think about how we can take action to remedy and rectify those situations.” 

A primer on tribal sovereignty

Tribal sovereignty is the right of tribes to govern themselves. Under the U.S. Constitution, federally recognized tribes generally have the same powers—with some exceptions—as federal and state governments, in regards to the regulation of affairs on tribal land, according to the Wabanaki Alliance. That includes the right to sustain traditional cultural values, establish their own form of government, determine citizenship requirements, enact legislation, and establish law enforcement and court systems. 

Right now, there are 574 federally recognized tribes, including the four Wabanaki Nations in Maine: the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Mi’kmaq Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe (at Motahkomikuk and Sipayik), and Penobscot Nation. 

Aaron Dana, Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative to the Maine House of Representatives, said that he’s glad to have the opportunity to stand up for his people and fight for their rights.

Those four tribes are bound by a 40-year-old land-claims settlement that puts them on a different footing than the other federally recognized tribes—a situation that the Maine tribes are working to rectify. 

Although the $81.5-million settlement was hailed as a landmark law after President Jimmy Carter signed it in 1980, tribal members have long regretted trading some of their rights to the state. Currently, the nations are treated more like Maine municipalities than sovereign states. 

For years, they have been seeking more self-government powers, especially regarding taxation, land use, environmental regulation, criminal justice, and natural-resource management on tribal lands. These are rights that other tribes around the country already have, and without them, Maine’s tribal nations have faced steep economic penalties

“I think sometimes when people hear sovereign they assume, ‘Oh, you just don’t want rules. You don’t want people telling you what to do,’” Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant, LL.D. ’22 said during the event. “What sovereignty really means in tribal communities is having that relationship with a federal government, and having normal tribal jurisdiction over our land, our people, and our resources.” 

It’s more than that, too. 

“It’s sort of become this sacred thing for us. It’s about protecting things and about not ceding our rights,” Bryant said. “We have [sovereignty]. We never gave it up. It’s about restoring the recognition of it.” 

‘We have hope’

Still, although recent legislative efforts to expand tribal sovereignty in Maine have largely had bipartisan support—unusual in an ever-more polarized political climate—they haven’t become law. This summer, Maine lawmakers failed to override Gov. Janet Mills’s veto of a bill to expand tribal sovereignty. 

That was a blow, Bryant said, but it’s not the end. 

“We’ve started a movement here. We’ve made progress. And, dare I say, we have hope.”

Others on the panel were in agreement, including Aaron Dana, Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative to the Maine House of Representatives; Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), speaker of the Maine House of Representatives; and Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford). 

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, talked to students in a government class about efforts to pass bills recognizing the tribal sovereignty of Maine’s four tribal nations.

Talbot Ross, a leading advocate for recognizing the tribal sovereignty of Maine’s four tribal nations, sponsored the bill that the governor vetoed as well as previous legislation to address some of the issues raised by the 1980 settlement. 

For the speaker, who earlier in the day had spoken about the bill’s political process with a government class co-taught by Beyea and Catherine Besteman, the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology, it is simply the right thing to do. 

“This package of bills is really about what the ambassador said, and that is to recognize the restoration, sovereignty, self-determination, and self-governance of the Wabanaki Nations,” Talbot Ross said. “I see that through a human-rights lens, we have an inherent right to dignity and to live our lives based on simply being human. There’s no one of us more human, or more entitled to the rights to live free and with liberty and happiness than anyone else.” 

Students in a government class listen to Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, give an insider’s view of the legislative process of a bill that would further recognize the tribal sovereignty of Maine’s four tribal nations.
Alison Beyea, executive director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, co-teaches the government class that hosted Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), speaker of the Maine House of Representatives (right).

Bennett said that many of his constituents haven’t required much persuasion to support the effort to expand tribal sovereignty. 

“I’m really happy to see this issue has become a bipartisan, or nonpartisan, issue,” he said. “I think that the Republicans and right-of-center folks are more receptive to this notion that there are powers that are distant from them, that feel remote, that are governing their lives, and they’re not happy about it. And they’re trying to get some of that control, some of that sovereignty, back.” 

For Dana, the effort to expand tribal sovereignty is important for today, but also for the future. 

“In our traditions, we pray and give thanks for everything, and I pray and I give thanks for the opportunity to stand up for my people, to fight for our rights, to fight for who we are, so that people will hear us,” he said. “There’s a saying that only the strong will survive. Well, when I look back at what my people have been through and what we’ve endured since first contact, and even before first contact, I’m a superhuman being. Not just me, but my people, the Wabanki people: we’re superhumans.” 

‘He would’ve loved it’ 

For this panel, however, it seemed important to have a conversation and hear from those with different backgrounds and political persuasions about why they supported the bill. 

“I believe it is important that we have opportunities where it isn’t soundbite after soundbite, and we can hear from people who are talking about how they think about really complicated public policy issues,” Beyea said. “We will always continue to invite many different voices and many different perspectives on lots of different issues.” 

That approach seems like the right one to audience member Liz Cotter, daughter of former Colby President Bill Cotter and his wife, Linda, for whom the Goldfarb discussion series—previously, a debate series—had been named. “I think it was wonderful because there was such rich, in-depth discussion about an important topic, and I think that is just so important for communities,” she said. 

An audience member takes a photo of Maulian Bryant, Penobscot Nation Ambassador, during a panel discussion about tribal sovereignty hosted by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs.

After discussions with the family, Beyea and the Goldfarb staff decided to reframe the series as a discussion instead of a debate. “Our goal is to move away from an ‘us vs. them’ mentality and to focus on deep conversations that address the most challenging policy issues from many different perspectives,” Beyea said.

Liz Cotter said her father was fully in favor of the change. President Cotter, the College’s longest-tenured president, died in March. 

“The debate aspect was really important to him, but it wasn’t the scoring-points part,” Cotter said. “What was important to him was that people listened to ideas, and maybe ideas that were different than they had experienced and had exposure to before. And I think this gave a great opportunity for people to really dig into that. I think he would’ve loved it and been really proud of it, and I think that the name change is a really good thing.” 

Zane Schiffman ’26, a government major and member of the Goldfarb Student Executive Board, was especially struck by the fact that while Sen. Bennett and Speaker Talbot Ross came to the matter from different policy perspectives, they arrived at the same conclusion. 

“It does give me a lot of hope,” he said, “about the future of our political situation.”