Native American Political Issues
The People of the Pollock
"Welcome to Perry, Maine! You are now half-way between the equator and the north pole," the road sign announced.
Links to Other Dispatches
"Hmm, who knew?," I said to Trekkers Becky and Jennifer as we passed by yet another 'lobster-by-the-pound' restaurant on our drive up the northeastern coast of Maine. It is still winter here and the roads are lined with leafless, white-barked birch trees as far as the eye can see.
This is the US Trek's first time in Maine and while I am sure a springtime visit would have been more welcome to our winter-worn bones, there is something to be said for the snowy calm. This is the United States' most northeasterly landscape. There are as many patches of red grass, here, popping up through the snow as there are open, rocky coast vistas topped with a Crayola blue sky. On our way through Perry, Maine, Becky, Jennifer
and I took a break from our short-lived trek to the North Pole to chat with some of the tribal members at the Passamaquaddy Indian reservation. While there, tribal leader Eddie Bassett spoke to us at length about Maine's Native American history and shared some rather remarkable stories about how his tribe changed forever in the 1970's.
An Odd Place to Find Yourself...the hemisphere's largest whirlpool
Recently on the trek, our friend Nick informed us about Native American termination policy in the 1950's when many tribes stopped receiving federal aid from the U.S. government.
Around the same time, John Peters, a Passamaquaddy native, discovered a treaty from 1794 that showed the loss of 6,000 acres of Passamaquaddy land. His attempt to discover the circumstances of that treaty lead to a lawsuit against the state of Maine in the
early 1970s. The St. Croix River was in the background as Eddie Bassett told us that Congress never ratified the treaties that were signed with the Passamaquaddy Indians. According to the Non-Intercourse Act of 1790, the failed ratification of these treaties made them all null and void. Having discovered this interesting bit of legal history, the Passamaquaddy argued in court that the State of Maine had no legal title to their land and fought back to reclaim almost two-thirds of the State of Maine.
In an attempt to appease the Passamaquaddy tribe and put an end to the ever lengthening battle in the courts, President Carter advocated for the Maine Land Claims Settlement Act which proposed to pay $127 million to the tribe and an additional $51 million to purchase thousands upon thousands of acres of native land (a mere fraction of the two thirds initially argued for). All that was needed to put an end to the nearly decade long court battle was the consent of the entire Passamaquaddy tribe.
In the late '60s and '70s, almost everyone in the tribe was on welfare and the promise of $127 million seemed too good to be true. The tribe's lawyer gathered tribal members together in a community meeting and persuaded the majority of the members that if they did not agree to the conditions of the act, they wouldn't receive anything. Tribal members then had less than two days to decide the course of their economic future. They had two choices; one, accept the pending conditions of the Land Claims Settlement Act, or two, take a chance for more money and land by taking the case to court and risking losing everything in a decision by a non-Indian court. Even though most members of the tribe chose to support the act, Eddie Bassett believes that "tribal members were negotiating under duress".
There were a handful of tribal members at the time, including Eddie, who were against the land claims decision. These members recognized that the majority of the tribe had not even heard that the legal battle was going on before being presented with the settlement act. They felt that the tribes' lawyer was railroading the decision through the tribe without allowing enough time for deliberation. Today, those initial voices of dissent have multiplied. Many tribal members, like Dotty Dana, agree that there was not enough thought on the part of the tribe before agreeing to the decision. "The talk of money," she told me, "blinded us. Many of us were living in poverty and we never had the time to absorb or understand [what was happening]."
What WAS happening was that the tribe was finally receiving monetary compensation for their stolen land in the form of a legislative act. However, a secret clause (Clause 16B) which didn't exist when the tribe agreed to the terms of the settlement was added to the act before being passed. In just a few words, the secret clause ordered that federal Native American laws would not apply to the Passamaquaddy tribe unless the tribe was specifically mentioned in them. The tribe signed the settlement act without knowing that this clause had been written into it and without knowing that they were giving up equal access to Native American legal rights.
According to Eddie Basset, the covert inclusion of Clause 16B has been detrimental to the tribe's economic growth. For example, when the law was passed that made it legal for reservations to open casinos on Native American land, the Passamaquaddy tribe was not specifically mentioned and was consequently forbidden from opening such establishments. When he speaks about the Land Claims Settlement Act, Eddie Basset becomes noticeably upset and explains that there are allegations of fraud surrounding the case and accusations that the tribe's lawyer was not acting in good faith. All of these complaints stem from the secret inclusion of Clause 16B and the lack of tribal involvement in the decision making process.
When Becky questioned Eddie about the direct effects of the act on the tribe, he started to shake his head and said, "This is where I get a case of the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde syndrome because there are things I hate about it and there are things I like about it". While there is a large amount of resentment about the way the passage of the act was handled, Eddie agrees that a lot of good has come out of it, too. Because of the act, the Passamaquaddy "know where we stand," according to Eddie. In addition to granting money to the tribe, the act also laid out specific guidelines of legal jurisdiction and made social programs available, like child welfare; none of which existed for the tribe prior to the 1970's.
I strapped myself into our trek-mobile after our break time chat with Eddie and headed back into the wilderness of northern Maine, trying to put the experience of the Passamaquaddy in the 70s into historical perspective. Perhaps the legal battle behind the Maine Land Claims Settlement act signifies an important move for the native movement, in which tribes begin to reclaim their stolen land? Or perhaps this act signifies yet another slap to Native American rights, in which the U.S. government offers up money in exchange for equality (Clause 16b, for example)?
Whatever the case, I will, from this point forward, pass through the stolen birch coated forests of Maine thinking of Eddie's last few words to me. He said that as a group, Native people like the Passamaquaddy have a message that is full of wisdom. "If we would only listen to it," he said, "we just might save the world. Native people have lived on this land for more than five-hundred generations, and if we really take the time to listen to the people and share their values, we just might be daring enough to learn".
Please email me at:
Stephanie - The making of a super man and the uniting of a people
Nick - It's ours so we're taking it back! Get off of our island!
Stephanie - Si! Hablo English, German, French, Portuguese, Swedish and Greek
Nick - Mr. Swiss! Can I order a pizza?