2007 to 2010
unsettled
A run-down basketball court at Pleasant Point. Decades after the land claims pact, Maine’s Passamaquoddy reservations have become difficult places in which to thrive. Ira Gilbert, a tribal member at Indian Township, puts it succinctly: “There’s a big law problem here: There is none.” Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

In the continued absence of a constitution to ensure government accountability, an atmosphere of fear and intimidation took hold on the Indian Township reservation.

Numerous present and former tribal leaders say the atmosphere – which endures today – is unlike anything experienced by the tribe since the 1960s, when state Indian agents held the power of life and death over many of their dependent charges, and crimes by outsiders against Indians were rarely prosecuted.

“The tribal leaders are doing the same thing as the priests and paper companies used to do,” says Allen Sockabasin, who was Indian Township’s governor in the 1970s, when the salary for the position was $300 a year; today it’s $102,500. “They’ve become our oppressors.”

Free discourse – the lifeblood of democracy – is becoming impossible, says the tribe’s current representative to the state Legislature, Madonna Soctomah. “People aren’t free to talk about the issues, because their employment comes from agencies that are controlled by people they might be criticizing,” she says. “Elections are bought because of this dependency.”

“You see what happens if you oppose someone in power,” adds Brian Altvater, who was lieutenant governor at Pleasant Point in the 1990s. “You speak your mind, you get targeted. Next thing you know, you don’t have a job.”

Ira Gilbert, an unemployed tribal member at Indian Township, puts it succinctly: “There’s a big law problem here: There is none.”

Billy Nicholas had been elected governor at Indian Township in the fall of 2006, and some of his detractors place the blame at least partially on him. Some say they even felt fearful for their safety, and the fact that Nicholas’ brother Alex was chief of police only compounded their sense of insecurity.

Regina Petit, a former Indian Township councilor and one-time real estate administrator, drew Billy Nicholas’ ire on several occasions by speaking ill of him.

In an early incident witnessed by her mother, Petit returned a phone message from the governor in September 2007, in which he started “yelling and screaming (and) swearing at me,” threatening her with a protection order, and telling her to “watch your back,” according to a statement she later gave to the police.

“I have stood up and said that they aren’t going to get away with anything on the reservation. I know they are crooks, and I’m not afraid,” Petit says. “But when the people you’re criticizing are law enforcement officers with guns, that’s another matter.”

A little over a year later, Petit says she was confronted in the tribal government parking lot by the governor’s wife, Lucy, who she says ordered her to “stop saying things about my husband” and physically restrained her from leaving in her car. Frightened, Petit drove to the tribal police station to file a complaint, only to have Billy Nicholas pull up outside “yelling, screaming and swearing (and) … calling me nasty names,” according to a notarized statement Petit drew up shortly thereafter.

According to Petit, Police Chief Alex Nicholas and his son, Officer Alex Nicholas Jr. – the governor’s brother and nephew – had to block the governor from entering the station and, later, had to escort Petit to her car. “Your brother is a ticking bomb,” she says she told the police chief.

unsettled
Stephanie Bailey, standing in front of her Indian Township home last spring, has described her run-ins with former Gov. Billy Nicholas, who she said retaliated against her after she filed a police complaint against one of his sons. “I broke down and cried,” she says, “because I realized how corrupt our system is and I felt helpless.” Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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n May 2010, another woman, Stephanie Bailey, filed a police complaint on behalf of her daughter, who she alleged had been assaulted by her boyfriend, one of the governor’s sons. According to Bailey, the governor subsequently called her supervisors at her tribal government job and ordered them to dock her hours. She says he also called the reservation’s child welfare director, telling her they needed to remove one of Bailey’s foster children from her home – a teenager who had allegedly witnessed the assault – because Bailey was a poor parent.

“I was mortified that Billy was willing to take this dilemma so far,” Bailey recalled in a signed statement obtained by the Press Herald. “I broke down and cried with (the child welfare director) because I realized how corrupt our system is and I felt helpless.”

Bailey says she had to fight the governor’s attempt to have the situation handled in tribal court and ultimately won a protection order for her daughter from a District Court judge.

“I had to invoke my rights as a citizen of the United States, because I can’t get justice in my community,” she told the Press Herald, adding that she believed Billy “is a ticking time bomb.”

Several other tribal members told the Press Herald similar stories but were unwilling to speak on the record for fear of retaliation.

Even lifelong political rivals Bobby Newell and John Stevens agree that things at Indian Township have reached a deeper, darker place since 2006, when Billy Nicholas was elected governor.

“John and I have been political opponents for years, but I can honestly say about John Stevens is that when I lost to him, I knew that people were safe and were being watched out for,” says former Gov. Newell, who last year completed his 46-month prison sentence for misappropriating federal funds. “When either of us were in office, I don’t recall anybody being threatened. It happens a lot now.”

“Billy has learned to control everything, and if you don’t agree with him, he’ll get rid of you,” Stevens says, adding that the situation is far worse than the Newell era.

Nicholas declined repeated requests for an interview with the Press Herald, saying the paper’s interest was “politically motivated.”

What were his critics angry about? A great deal, starting with that most evocative of Passamaquoddy issues: tribal control of their land.

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

[email protected]

 

Coming tomorrow:

Secrets and distrust