2010 to 2014
unsettled
The pinhole camera captures the trailer home of a Passamaquoddy tribal member in the parking lot of the now-closed Creative Apparel Associates building in Indian Township. Changes in tribal leadership in 2010 did not lead to a longtime goal: enacting a tribal constitution. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

It all caught up to Billy Nicholas in the end.

The Indian Township governor had lost support on account of the various controversies during his administration, from the leasing camp lots to stopping native alewives from coming up the St. Croix River.

In the reservation’s September 2010 tribal election, he received a stinging public rebuke, losing the leadership role to his own lieutenant governor, Joseph Socobasin, by a vote of 204-166. He didn’t take it well.

Stephanie Bailey was standing outside the building where the ballots were being counted that night. When the results were announced, she said she saw Billy storm out and jump into his truck. “He squealed out of that parking lot, crying like a baby, and let it be known that night that he was done. He wasn’t even going to finish his term,” she recalled. When he went into his office to clear out his things – even though he had two more weeks in his term – Bailey says he had his gun resting on his desk.

“People who worked there felt intimidated when they saw that,” she recalled.

Nicholas declined to be interviewed for these stories. In a 2012 letter to the community, he wrote that he had “stepped away two weeks early to let the current administration have a smoother transition, and I began my own transition.”

“The Chief’s position,” he added, “is no walk in the park.”

Around that time he also convened a series of meetings with Gov.-elect Socobasin, who was for now still his subordinate as lieutenant governor. He wanted Socobasin to approve a severance package, and not a small one.

The severance package, documentation for which was obtained by the Press Herald, was for a staggering $40,436. Socobasin, who says past chiefs sometimes got a severance payment equal to a few weeks’ salary, signed off on the unprecedented payment to his outgoing boss.

The governor – whose title was changed to chief in 2010 – admits he has no credible explanation for approving the payment. “I actually offered something that was not quite that high, but after we met a couple of different times and he gave his explanations, well …,” Chief Socobasin said, his voice trailing off. “It was a week after the election, and I guess at the end of the day I had agreed to do it.

“Right or wrong it happened,” he said, “and, I don’t know, I guess I don’t have a reasonable answer.”

The new chief was inaugurated with high hopes on Dec. 3, 2010, in a traditional ceremony presided over by his grandfather and seven-term governor, John Stevens. At the culmination of the proceedings – which included drumming, chanting, smudging (ritual cleansing with smoke), and shawl-dancing – Stevens placed the ceremonial headdress on his grandson’s head and embraced him.

The 38-year-old chief pleaded for his people to come together, both within Indian Township, where the election had been extremely divisive, and with the tribe’s other reservation at Pleasant Point. In this vein, he praised Billy Nicholas for having returned the tribe to a sounder financial footing, even though the defeated governor had failed to show up for the ceremony.

“Many of the social issues in this community are because people have a lack of hope,” the new chief said. “We have 50 to 100 people applying for every position. We need to change that.”

People were hopeful. “Joe has a good heart,” Councilor Elizabeth Neptune told a reporter. “If he leads from his heart, as he did tonight, we will go far.”

Chief Socobasin, who said he does not plan to run for re-election this year, disappointed many on the reservation by failing to push through promised reforms, most critically the passage of a tribewide constitution that would make top tribal officials accountable to the people and to tribal law.

“I supported Joseph and I really believed that he could do something,” Bailey said. “Now I think he should really just step down.”

Throughout his term as chief, Socobasin spoke out on the vital importance of enacting such a constitution, calling it one of his top priorities. “I have nothing to lose because I’m not looking to be elected again and I can be fearless,” he wrote in an open letter to the tribe in January 2013. “I’ll tell you what I hope to leave as an enduring tool for us to use and polish. … I am hopeful that we will soon have a constitution of our own.”

But progress on this and other reform pledges kept its agonizingly slow pace, raising suspicions that the new governor remained under the influence of his predecessor, who was re-elected to the governing council in 2012. For many, disclosure of the post-election severance package – now common knowledge within the tribe – confirmed the worst.

“Joe told me when he got in, ‘I’m going to have that constitution. I’m going to set up a committee to do it. I want to make a ruling that they have to deliver in a certain period of time,'” recalled Stevens, his grandfather. “And I believe he would have done it if he hadn’t appointed Billy to the committee. He dragged it out and dragged it out and dragged it out.”

unsettled
Allen Sockabasin, a Passamaquoddy tribal elder, rests his hands on a boat oar while working at his camp on Long Lake in Indian Township. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

B

rian Altvater, a former lieutenant governor at Pleasant Point who chairs the board of the tribe’s profitable Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Co., said that in addition to the severance package, Chief Socobasin hired Nicholas to a $45,000-a-year position as an economic development consultant. Socobasin refused to answer questions about this, and Nicholas declined to be interviewed.

In addition to his earnings from forestry contracts, board memberships, and serving on the tribal council, last year Nicholas was reappointed chief game warden, which carries a salary in the low $50,000s.

“You add it all up, and some individuals have a lot to protect,” Altvater said dryly. “The reason we don’t have a constitution is corruption. They would rather have the power with a handful of elected officials.”

Allen Sockabasin, who was governor at Indian Township in the 1970s, agreed. “They say they want it, but they don’t want accountability or transparency. They want to be able to manipulate and politicize everything they do, so they can control everything,” he said. “We have people who are going hungry and tribal leaders who have three, four, five, six sources of income off tribal and federal money.

“And anyone who says something about it, they’re targeted,” he added.

Take the case of the tribal newsletter, Keq Leyu. In the summer of 2012, Stephanie Bailey approached Chief Socobasin about reviving the publication, to give rank-and-file tribal members basic information about the proceedings of the Joint Tribal Council, announcements of public bids and contracts, and a place to discuss issues.

Initially, Socobasin was supportive, contributing open letters to the publication that sometimes frankly addressed public concerns about mishandling of forest assets, the existence and management structure of tribal companies, and other issues.

Although she and her husband struggled to support their family and foster children, Bailey worked on the newsletter without pay, relying on donations of printer ink and access to computers to get one to three issues out each month, even when the electric company cut off her power for lack of payment.

But by the winter of 2012-13, Bailey began running into bureaucratic roadblocks. Socobasin would be unavailable for interviews. Department heads would refuse to share public information. Bailey said at one point Billy Nicholas’ wife, Lucy, told the school principal not to share the school lunch menu and other basic information “because I would change it for my agenda.” She said the chief told her Nicholas hated the newsletter and wished she wasn’t writing it.

Her last issue ran in September 2013. “It was my hope that each department would be more engaged in keeping you all ‘in the know,’ but it is not so,” she wrote in a farewell editorial that thanked Socobasin for his support. “Our team did the best we could with the limited information we were given. … This issue is a small one because it seems the tribal departments that serve you have no news.”

For months now, Socobasin and the reservation council have been pressing Bailey to stop using the Keq Leyu name on an invitation-only discussion page she maintains on Facebook. She has refused, and in April of this year, the governor told the Press Herald the government was considering its options to enforce the ruling. Last week he declined to answer further questions.

But there are some bright signs at Indian Township as well, indications that Chief Socobasin may be trying to push through some vital changes before his term in office expires in September.

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

[email protected]

 

Coming tomorrow:

The closing chapter