1978 to 1993
unsettled
A boarded-up building belies the difficult life on Peter Dana Point in Indian Township. Governing without a tribal constitution in the years following the Indian land claims settlement of 1980 put the Passamaquoddy in a risky spot, even with their own leadership. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

W

ith the constitution stillborn, the tribal courts out of the picture and outside authorities not wishing to intrude on internal tribal matters, the stage was set for serious abuse.

It was the saddest twist of fate. Straight through the 1960s, the Passamaquoddy people had been grossly treated – with individuals denied the vote and wantonly killed, their allies jailed on trumped-up charges, their property and resources taken away – all because they lived without the legal rights and law enforcement protections most Mainers took for granted. Now, amid their hard-fought, David-and-Goliath victory over the state of Maine and the federal government, they were slipping into another legal breach, this one first torn by the state but made far wider by the actions of their own leaders.

For rank-and-file members of the tribe, the rule of law had begun to slip.

Bobby Newell, the man perhaps most responsible for this state of affairs, had already been touched by accusations of impropriety.

Newell had grown up dirt poor and didn’t begin to learn English until elementary school. Still, he became one of the few Passamaquoddy of his generation to attend college. As a young man, he had made an impression on Maine’s first commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ed Hinckley, who saw in him the charisma, confidence and intellect to be a great leader, and Hinckley helped him become the first Maine Indian to attend the former Haskell Institute, the Indian college in Kansas now known as Haskell Indian Nations University. He attended the state police academy and, in his early 20s, had a short stint as a Pleasant Point tribal constable, resigning after being swept up in the epic 1967 police brutality case, where state troopers stood accused of barging into homes and beating the Indian inhabitants.

During the 1970s, Newell became active in politics at Pleasant Point, serving on the governing council and as director of the reservation housing authority, through which federal housing grants flowed. As the land claims settlement reached its final stages, he was named to the four-person negotiating team, and in the fall of 1978 he was elected governor.

At his inauguration, Newell pledged to increase Indian self-sufficiency by encouraging small business, educational attainment, and greater administration of Indian services by the tribe itself. Two years later – even as the historic land claims settlement was being finalized – his constituents circulated a petition demanding his recall. Newell, it said, “was remiss in keeping the tribe informed of how federal funds and programs were being administered.”

Newell resigned, and tribal officials chose not to call for an outside investigation of his alleged misdoings. (He says today that at that stage “we didn’t have any money to mismanage … only a few funded programs, and they were very, very inadequately funded.”) Three months later President Jimmy Carter signed the land settlement act into law, diverting attention to the future.

Shortly thereafter, Newell left his wife and five kids, he says, and moved to Indian Township to live with his girlfriend, whom he later married. He took up logging.

D. Gordon Mott, a professional forester who had worked in the woods since 1946, was hired by the tribe in 1982 to develop a forestry plan. He remembers well encountering 6-foot-2 Newell on one of his first days at work, shortly after the logger had been forced to stop cutting a parcel of prime spruce for which he allegedly did not have the proper permissions.

“This great fellow came in the door with a terrible, terrible dark scowl on his face and towered right over (my colleague) and growled at him: ‘OK, you’ve put me out of work. You have to find a place to cut,'” Mott recalls. “I told him I did see a stand of balsam fir on Route 1 that had been hit by a storm but was still salvageable.”

At the time, balsam fir was the workhorse species, usually targeted for cutting, while the more valuable spruce and pine were allowed to mature. But when they drove to the stand, Newell asked if he could cut one of the trees down. “So he and his partner, Clayton Cleaves, got out and got their chainsaw and took the fattest fir they had there and knocked it down,” Mott recalls. “And Bobby knelt down and started smelling the stump. I said: ‘Bobby, what are you doing?'”

Newell’s response revealed the degree to which the logger had been targeting only the highest-value species in the forest:. “I’ll tell you the truth,” Mott recalls him answering. “I’ve been a logger for 20 years, and I’ve cut spruce and pine but I’ve never cut a fir.”

In a testament to his self-assurance and charisma, Newell – a recent transplant from a rival reservation – ran against veteran Indian Township leader John Stevens in 1986 and won. His sister Molly Jeanette Neptune was elected lieutenant governor. This was despite a letter from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development surfacing in the final weeks of the campaign that complained that Newell – who sat on the tribe’s housing authority board – had not made a HUD rental payment on his own residence in nearly three years and had allegedly been involved in illegal self-dealing: winning contracts to repair housing authority properties.

The tribal council, possibly concerned about how he might oversee his own cutting of trees on tribal lands, passed a special ordinance forcing him to give up his logging license. Still, things would not go smoothly in the woods – and many other sectors – under his two-term administration.

One of Newell’s first acts was to shutter the tribe’s child welfare office, where the director, former Gov. Allen Sockabasin, had uncovered dozens of cases of alleged child abuse and incest. According to press reports, 17 cases had been prepared for a Washington County grand jury and more than 70 cases were under investigation.

Office staff had been furloughed earlier in the year due to a temporary funding gap, but shortly after Newell took office, the tribal council made the closure permanent and attempted to seize all of its investigative records. “Many members of tribal government were under investigation,” child welfare investigator and former Calais police Officer Ed Nadeau told the Bangor Daily News. “After (Newell) was selected governor, the whole child welfare program was thrown out the window.”

None of the child abuse cases made it to court.

“It was hard,” Sockabasin says today. “It’s a small community, and you find yourself investigating people you’re related to.”

Newell told a reporter that Sockabasin had received poor evaluations from the BIA and was using his position in “a vindictive fashion” to “go after his political enemies.”

Sockabasin wrote letters critical of Newell in the tribal newsletter, Keq Leyu (which means “What’s going on?”); Newell shut the publication down. Sockabasin led petition drives to have Newell and his sister recalled, to institute two-year terms for all elected officials, and to restore the vote to tribal members living outside Washington County. None of his efforts succeeded.

Newell was re-elected in 1990. Then things began, once again, to come apart for him.

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

[email protected]

 

Coming tomorrow:

An era of instability