March 8, 1968
unsettled
A dirt road leads into the woods in Indian Township, one of two Passamaquoddy reservations in Washington County. After years of research, an attorney representing the tribe in the mid-1960s believed he had found the way forward in a potentially historic land claims case against the state. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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fter five years of research, Don Gellers felt he had cracked the Passamaquoddy’s land claims case. The state, he believed, owed the tribe in excess of $150 million and title to tens of thousands of acres of land illegally appropriated from their treaty lands on the eastern branch of the St. Croix River.

Now he was ready to file it.

He believed the facts showed that Maine had failed to live up to its obligations under the 1794 treaty, which had been explicitly passed on to Maine when the state regained its independence from Massachusetts in 1820. The trust fund – worth perhaps $150 million – had been mismanaged and looted, and now contained only $70,000. Swaths of the Indians’ land had been given illegally to white settlers.

Gellers’ brief would demand full compensation for these breaches of contract, a reimbursement of their trust fund “and all accrued and accumulated income” and a return of stolen land. (His contract with the tribe gave him a 10 percent contingency fee, so if successful he stood to collect $15 million.)

There was one considerable obstacle, however: Maine, almost alone among the states, refused to allow itself to be sued. But Gellers believed he’d found a way around the problem.

He would serve his suit on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – which had no such prohibition – for failing to uphold the 1794 treaty. Massachusetts, presumably, would then sue Maine as an aggrieved sovereign.

The strategy, which focused on money more than land, had the added attraction of threatening only a handful of property owners. “There are four white families squatting on the land, and the Indians are willing to let them stay,” Gellers told the Boston Herald.

“All the Passamaquoddy want is what belongs to them, no more.”

The research had been exhausting, a hunt for documentary treasures lost in archives scattered from the capital of the United States to the capital of New Brunswick. The Indian Rights Association grants – about $7,000 a year – had kept the project going, but he was living hand to mouth, driving a Chevy he’d purchased for $150.

His wife had left him almost a year before, and he started inviting his counterculture friends to crash and smoke dope at the 32-room Eastport home that housed his office and sprawling library.

He had taken up with one of his clients, Annabelle Bassett, the estranged wife of Danny Bassett, perhaps the most physically imposing and dangerous Indian on either reservation. Bassett, Gellers later wrote, had beaten his wife “viciously and constantly, even to the point of hospitalization.” Bassett knew they intended to marry once the divorce went through. “He said to me, ‘I will destroy you and everyone associated with you,’ ” Gellers recalled.

Tom Tureen, who had worked on the land claims case as an intern in the summer of 1967, found Gellers brilliant but disturbing. In the 1990s, he told author Neil Rolde that Gellers had by then fallen into a self-imposed decline, was deep into drugs, and was “as weird and perverted and demonic as anyone I’ve ever met.”

Today, Tureen declines to elaborate, except to say: “He was – how should we say – a very imperfect person.”

Others who knew him had a less visceral reaction. Former Indian Township Gov. John Stevens remembers him as “a very kind and gentle man,” and “a real friend.” William Williamson, a Press Herald reporter, came to count him as a friend after leaving the paper. “Being with him was often exasperating, sometimes downright aggravating, but never, never dull,” he later recalled. “He had a high degree of personal magnetism, and I thought he was a witty, intelligent and thoroughly decent fellow.”

He was, however, loathed by many, denounced as “that Indian lawyer” and accused, as Williamson recalled, “of just about everything from dope peddling to miscegenation to advocating the violent overthrow of the government.”

“You would run the gauntlet going into Don’s house sometimes, because they would put up placards saying ‘Get out of Eastport’ or throw things at the house,” recalls his office assistant at the time, Frances Tomah, who says there were always a lot of hangers-on at the house, which had become a sort of “open house for a free-floating set of New Yorkers.”

“He was all business during the day, but I think they probably sat around and smoked pot and discussed how the world should work,” she adds. “Tom was super straight and squeaky clean, and not at all a part of that scene.”

Gellers, she thinks in retrospect, was struggling to be accepted. “He really was looking for a homeland, and he thought he might have found it with the Passamaquoddy.”

State and local officials were still hounding him. The commissioner of the new Indian Affairs Department, Ed Hinckley, tried to persuade the Indian Rights Association to cut off its crucial financial support, insinuating the attorney was squandering money better spent on other purposes.

Hinckley had convinced two of the association’s board members that a “state lawyer” should be handling the case, apparently unaware that the tribe had sought and been refused just such representation. He visited the association’s headquarters in Philadelphia bearing a letter signed by Joseph Nicholas, the leader of the tribe’s non-confrontational faction, and a dozen other Indians, calling for Gellers to be removed as tribal counsel. The tribal government, however, reasserted its faith in the attorney.

“I think the state is pressuring Hinckley because it doesn’t want our case to go to court,” Indian Township Gov. John Stevens told the Press Herald when Hinckley’s effort became public. “I think this whole business is just to foul it up.”

In late 1966, Hinckley and his new Indian agent, Arnold Davis, approached former county attorney Francis Brown about a possible grand jury investigation of Gellers in connection, Davis later claimed. The proposed investigation was to focus on Gellers’ actions during his struggles with the Indian Affairs Department, but it is unclear exactly what their allegations were.

Meanwhile, Stevens and former Pleasant Point Gov. George Francis – now the tribe’s representative to the Legislature – charged Davis was continuing many of the practices that made his predecessor, Hiram Hall, so reviled. Davis, a 58-year-old former forestry warden, even told Press Herald reporter William Williamson he had deep admiration for Hall and hoped he could do “half as good a job” as he had.

The Indians, Davis added, “get too much now” and should be assimilated into white society. “They’re like rats in a barrel as long as they’re out there on the reservations, living on welfare.”

Davis also claimed he had proof that some of the volunteers working on the reservations with VISTA – or Volunteers in Service to America, the domestic version of the Peace Corps – were homosexuals. Pressed for evidence in regards to one of the accused, he claimed he could “tell just by looking at him.”

Davis was ultimately sacked for making comments like these to the press, but publicly he blamed Gellers – who had organized a petition drive against him – for his firing.

The police continued to pull Gellers over, apparently hoping to find him in possession of marijuana. He and John Stevens began to suspect the police had tapped his phone, an assertion Stevens says they tested by giving out word of where the attorney was supposedly about to go. The police were awaiting him there.

Through obstacles personal and political, Gellers trudged on. And on May 8, 1968, he drove to Portland, picked up reporter William Williamson, and drove to the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston to file Passamaquoddy Tribe vs. Massachusetts.

When he returned home to Eastport, the police were waiting for him.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]

Coming tomorrow:

The sting operation in Eastport