Spring 2014
A Passamaquoddy elder rests his hands on an oar while working near Long Lake in Indian Township this spring. The people on the tribe’s two eastern Maine reservations have spent decades fighting for their rights while struggling to preserve their collective identity. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

An economic, political and cultural renaissance is underway throughout Indian Country in the United States.

It’s been going on for nearly a quarter-century. Whereas in the 1980s, economic growth on Indian reservations lagged far behind the rate of the U.S. economy, through the booming 1990s and the stagnant 2000s, per capita income growth on Indian reservations outstripped the U.S. as a whole fivefold.

While U.S. poverty rates held steady (at 10 percent), in Indian Country they fell from 48 percent to 32 percent between 1990 and 2010. As U.S. unemployment increased from 8 percent to 10 percent, Indian unemployment fell from 26 percent to 19 percent over the same period. Incomes and life expectancy are still far below the U.S. average, but the gap is closing fast.

“The economic growth has been so rapid, and it has applied to both tribes with and without casinos,” says Joseph P. Kalt of the Harvard University Project on American Indian Economic Development, which compiled the data. “There’s a renaissance going on across Indian America and it’s not about casinos.”

The reason it’s happening, Kalt says, is the greatly increased control Indians have over their own affairs, including economic development efforts and the management of federally funded programs. “For a hundred years, the tribes were fundamentally being run by Washington, D.C., but we’ve switched from that now. Today tribal decision-makers are making their own economic and resource decisions and running their services and we see this marked statistical evidence of improvement.”

There’s a catch, though. The data show that the tribes which have missed out on this renaissance are precisely those that have failed to establish a stable rule of law enforced by formal checks and balances on those in power.


“In tribe after tribe, we see their turnarounds once there’s constitutional reform,” says Kalt, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Self-government matters, but you have to have a good government that works, and at its core is the rule of law issue.”

Which brings us back to the Passamaquoddy, a people who have had breathtaking achievements – and failures – in the 50 years since four Indian Township women sat down on a gravel pile to stop a white man from taking yet another patch of their land.

A few hundred impoverished wards of the state, denied the right to vote in state elections and even the basic police, fire and medical services other Mainers took for granted, took on the state of Maine and the U.S. Department of the Interior, blasting apart the legal assumptions that had denied sovereignty to Eastern Indian tribes. Against seemingly impossible odds, they negotiated a historic land claims settlement that redefined their status, ensuring they would never again be treated as wards and, as a 19th century Maine court ruled, “imbeciles.”

They and their allies first took on racist barbers and state patrolmen, then the governor of Maine and the U.S. secretary of the Interior. In the process, their chiefs were targeted for sanctions, their first legal champion was railroaded through the courts, and their second was showered with death threats. But the Passamaquoddy persevered, and in doing so transformed the foundations of U.S. Indian law and policy to the benefit of dozens of tribes across the Eastern United States. They won themselves a trust fund, federal recognition, the means to expand their land holdings more than fivefold, and a great degree of sovereignty and self-government.

But that one hurdle remains: ensuring the rule of law at home, that essential underpinning of economic, social, and political prosperity the world over. The Passamaquoddy need an effective constitution, and the vast majority of them appear to want one.

It need not look like the U.S. Constitution, Kalt notes. “This is not one size fits all,” he said.


Under the Iroquois Constitution, for instance, actions of the tribe’s top “Confederate Lords” can be reviewed by a council of War Chiefs who can “divest the erring Lord of his title by order of the women in whom the titleship is vested.” The women – a certain circle of elders – select “another of their sons as a candidate and the Lords shall elect him.”

The Cochiti Pueblo of New Mexico have a pure theocracy in which a member of the shaman class – the Cacique – appoints key officials annually, but his actions are watched over by a Council of Principales, a sort of Supreme Court, but one without lawyers.

“Everyone has to get a rule of law that is backed up by checks and balances, but the system doesn’t have to be Western in style or design,” Kalt notes. “It just has to deal with the problem.”

What the Passamaquoddy’s constitution looks like will be up to them. Those that have been voted on in the past are modeled on the U.S. system, with a separate judiciary and power divided between governors, the Joint Tribal Council, and the people themselves, who can force certain actions through a referendum process.

Others argue for a more traditional system, whereby supreme power lies in a circle of female elders – Clan Mothers – who must act by consensus and whose orders are carried out by chiefs. “The Clan Mothers would be on the top, and they would put the decisions down on the council and chiefs who would be the ones who would carry them out,” says Plansowes Dana, an advocate for tribal fishing and hunting rights from Pleasant Point, who says people still know who the Clan Mothers are.

One of them, several tribal members said, would be Mary Bassett of Pleasant Point, who says that under Passamaquoddy traditional governance, women played a central role. “It was a matriarchy really, and they had to have consensus,” she says. “But even if you didn’t agree, you didn’t make trouble.” The central purpose, which she and many other tribal members lament has been lost, was simple: “We just took care of each other.”


Many tribal members who spoke to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram emphasized that people no longer look out for one another the way they did 40 or 50 years ago. Neighbors used to send their children to do household chores for the sick and pregnant mothers, and everyone parented the kids. The coming of the land claims, many said, has weakened those impulses, turning the tribe into more of a collection of competing individuals.

“When I was growing up I fetched people water, I helped doing laundry – people respected one another,” says Pleasant Point councilor Mary Creighton, 70. “I remember when this woman died in childbirth, my grandmother took in the kids. Those were things we did and were valued. I don’t see that anymore. Now people don’t even say hello to you.”

Indian Township tribal councilor Sonja Dana, 69, echoes this sentiment: “Before the land claim, everyone was basically equal and we didn’t have these problems,” she says. “The younger generation – I don’t know how we missed the boat in helping them to see what our cultural traditional values are.”

Plansowes Dana is one member of the younger generation who champions traditional ways and thinks they need not be declared extinct. “Anything that’s lost isn’t really lost. You just have to pray and ask the spirits and the Creator, and if you’re serious about it then the answers will be brought back to you,” she says. “Anything that’s been lost can be brought back again.”

“We need to go back to the Old Age,” she concludes. “We’re going in the wrong direction.”

Ira Gilbert, an unemployed Passamaquoddy tribal member, bites into a frozen Salisbury steak dinner that he shared recently with his three dogs at his rustic home in Indian Township. Poverty persists on the reservation; a Harvard University study suggests that economic success among American Indians is linked to a stable rule of law. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer



ifty years ago – when elderly Chief George Francis first sat down with the young attorney Don Gellers – the Passamaquoddy language was widely spoken, and many adults spoke English only haltingly. Today, however, this language that has been spoken on Maine’s shores and forests for millennia is in retreat.

Wayne Newell, who helped introduce a writing system for his people’s tongue in the early 1970s, estimates there are fewer than 400 people left on Earth who speak Passamaquoddy fluently, and the number goes down each year as members of the older generation pass on. “This past year, we lost seven, I think.”

“It’s been a real challenge over the years to keep the youngsters speaking the language,” he notes. “They understand, but not many of them are speaking.”

Some of the reasons for this would be familiar to speakers of small languages the world over: the arrival of television in the 1960s, the spread of English-language media through books, films and the Internet, and the absence of native language alternatives. And, as seven-term former Indian Township governor John Stevens puts it: “If there is a white woman married to an Indian or a white man married to an Indian woman, they don’t speak Passamaquoddy; they speak English.” Out-marriages are understandably common in a tribe that numbers only 3,000, a great many of whom are related to one another.

But the Sisters of Mercy, the Roman Catholic nuns who operated the reservation schools until the 1970s, didn’t help matters when they slapped or humiliated children for speaking their language. Parents, not wishing harm to come to their kids, sometimes intentionally raised them in English. On top of that, in the 1950s and 1960s, Passamaquoddy thought it rude to speak their own language in the presence of those who didn’t understand it, which reduced the exposure of mixed-marriage children to their Indian parent’s speech.

There’s more at stake than just words: Languages encode and express cultural values and ways of seeing and behaving in the world. “When I speak Passamaquoddy, it comes from a totally different perspective,” tribal member Dwayne Tomah says. “It’s the connection. I speak and I feel it; I’m connected to it.”


Allen Sockabasin, a longtime champion of the language who was governor at Indian Township in the mid-1970s, says non-speakers also lost access to information on traditional hunting and trapping techniques. “The language is the key to open the lock of independence for native people, because in our language are our traditional values, our way of life, our way of belief, and our spirituality,” he says.

Can the decline of the language be reversed? Wayne Newell hopes so, noting that technology can help record, preserve and teach endangered languages. “But I know it’s a hard road no matter what,” he says. “I’d just love to be more optimistic, but if I came back a hundred years from now, I would hope I would find the language being spoken, but honestly I don’t know.”

Federally subsidized housing like the ones seen in this photograph from last spring now account for a large amount of the homes on Pleasant Point Indian Reservation in Down East Maine. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


here is renewed movement toward passing a constitution, however. A constitutional committee has drafted a new document– one largely inspired by the U.S. system, with divided powers and separate branches of government – and in 2011, the Joint Tribal Council sanctioned a process for it to be evaluated. Four public hearings must be held, alternating between the Pleasant Point and Indian Township reservations. A tribewide vote can then be held to ratify the final product.

The process has slowed to a standstill. Indian Township held the first of its public workshop hearings last year, but months have passed without Pleasant Point Chief Clayton Cleaves scheduling one for his reservation, effectively freezing the process.

Chief Cleaves says he isn’t trying to delay action but also indicated he isn’t a big fan of the constitutional effort. “Right now our constitution at Pleasant Point primarily has a lot to do with accountability and that’s all,” he says. “It was developed thinking that there are crooks running the tribal government and they should be held accountable. But I believe it should be greater than just protecting me as an individual from the tribal government.”


Rather, Cleaves says, the constitution should seek to expand the tribe’s rights vis-a-vis the state and federal governments, particularly in economic development matters like hunting, fishing and gambling. “Our constitution should allow me as a Native American to go fishing and not have to be subject to state laws,” he says by way of an example. “But I’m a little worried the state won’t recognize it.”

But his counterpart at Indian Township, Chief Joseph Socobasin, appears to be making a final push to present a constitution to voters before his term ends this September.

“This is one of the goals I hoped to accomplish in office, to have a constitution ratified by both communities,” he said in April. “I think we have a unity I don’t remember in a long time when it comes to this issue.”

Surprisingly, among the tribal members who say they see the need for a tribewide constitution is the person who did so much to prevent one from being adopted in the past. “We need to have a constitution that will make people accountable,” says former Chief Bobby Newell, who served his prison term for misappropriating federal funds and again resides at Indian Township. “You can’t have law without having somebody who can enforce the law.”

Even if a vote is held, passage at Indian Township remains uncertain, in large part because of fears that a joint document will somehow lead to dominance by Pleasant Point when key issues – who can vote, what activities elected officials can engage in, what jobs or rights residents who are less than one-fourth Passamaquoddy (and, thus, non-members) can hold – are brought to a vote in tribal referendums.

“I was one of them that stopped the constitution (under Newell) and I will continue to my dying breath,” says Indian Township councilor and former lieutenant governor Sonja Dana. “Pleasant Point never cared for Indian Township, and they’ve wanted us to go to hell, basically. They have more voters, so if we had a joint constitution they would outvote us on anything they wanted when you put any votes out to the public.”


While this is a real fear, it may be an unwarranted one, as the numerical advantage Pleasant Point once had has long since evaporated. According to the 2010 federal census, Pleasant Point has a total population of 749 to Indian Township’s 718. In the last gubernatorial election – which was held that same year – 370 tribal members cast ballots at Indian Township to only 340 at Pleasant Point.

In late April, Chief Socobasin said he was renewing his push to get a draft constitution ready for voters, with the hope of a referendum on the document being held by the end of summer. He declined subsequent interview requests, however, and tribal officials say there has been no progress in recent months.

On April 15, former Indian Township Chief Billy Nicholas abruptly announced his resignation from the tribal council in a fiery letter. “Being in a political capacity puts me in a position of disadvantage when it comes to defending my rights,” he wrote. “My family and I are continually being attacked, and my recourse for defense as an elected official is limited.”

“I will not sit idle, and I will be able to address ignorant people without limitations,” he added. “Although I have much more to say, the individuals that have participated in creating so much animosities and chaos in our community should be ashamed.”

Many in the tribe believe Nicholas intends to run for governor in this September’s election. Nicholas declined to be interviewed for this series.

Many are hopeful that a constitutional order will be established, enabling the tribe to follow so many other tribes into an era of increasing prosperity and cultural revival.


“What we’re doing is going through growing pains,” says Pleasant Point councilor Ed Bassett. “It may not be easy for us, but we are going to come out of this in a good way.”

“We have come a long way in 50 years – quite a long ways, I think,” says tribal historian Donald Soctomah. “Most of it for the better, some of it not so good. But I think we are getting stronger because we’re learning more about our culture and there’s more pride in our community about it.”

“We’re able,” he says, “to practice it out in the open.”

Passamaquoddy historian Donald Soctomah walks past a weed-covered gravel pile just off Route 1 in Indian Township, where a handful of Indians sat in protest 50 years ago, stopping a white man from building a road on reservation land, and starting a chain of events that would alter the course of history. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


hile many Passamaquoddy are working to pass a constitutional document to mend their people’s civic rift, others are quietly working to heal older, deeper wounds.

The Passamaquoddy – individually and collectively – have been through a lot of trauma. Numerous tribal members say that the priests and nuns who used to run the reservation’s schools were often abusive, and that some priests – and at least one later public school teacher – sexually abused a large number of pupils of both genders. Additionally, in the 1950s through the 1970s, the state of Maine took many tribal children from abusive homes only to place them in often more abusive foster homes.


As in any community, such traumas can have an impact on the people in subsequent generations. Because of their history as neglected, unprotected wards of the state, people living at Maine’s Indian reservations bore more than their share.

When Denise Altvater was 7, she and her five siblings were taken from their parents and placed in a foster home in the Old Town area where they were starved, sexually assaulted, locked in a cold, rat-infested basement and made to stay in a urine-soaked bed for 24 hours at a time. When they tried to alert social workers, nobody believed their stories. When she returned to her mother at 14, she was raped by a tribal member.

“I don’t think people understand what it’s like when you grow up in absolute Third World type of poverty and then you experience things that take your soul away, leaving you just a shell trying to survive day to day to day the best you can,” she says. “And what we do because we’re all hurting is that we have all this lateral violence that we take out on each other, and all this internalized oppression.”

It can be passed down on the unborn. You were abused as a child, or you watched some white men try to beat your father to death, or a teacher sexually assaulted you, and maybe you never talked about it. “It’s hard enough to grow up on a reservation and even harder when you grow up with a parent who has lived through so much trauma and PTSD that they pass it on to their children,” Altvater says. “My children didn’t know why as a mother I was abusive and absent, and then your grandchildren suffer this unsolved generational trauma that nobody has even talked about.”

Altvater talked about what happened to her for the first time in 1999, when she stepped forward and told her story for a film the Maine Department of Health and Human Services made to help train social workers to understand the importance of complying with a new federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, that mandated children be placed with foster parents inside their tribe whenever possible. She says she didn’t receive any emotional or clinical support, and wound up being hospitalized.

Now she’s helping people tell their stories safely as a co-founder of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a quasi-state commission charged with uncovering the truth about what happened to tribal children involved with the state’s child welfare system. “The more you tell your story, the less power it has over you,” she says. “You can’t move forward without going back.”


The commission, formally signed into being in a June 2012 ceremony including Gov. Paul LePage and the chiefs of the Penobscots, the Houlton band of Maliseets, the Aroostook band of Micmacs, and the two Passamaquoddy reservations, is the first of its type in the United States to focus on Indian issues. Commissioners have been taking testimony from informants in recent months and intend to release a report in the second half of next year.

Melissa Altvater, left, and her father, Dave Homan, center, listen as tribal elder Allen Sockabasin plays guitar near the water at Pleasant Point in Washington County. Sockabasin is a longtime champion of the Passamaquoddy language, “the key to open the lock of independence for native people.” Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


on Gellers, the lawyer who first championed the Passamaquoddy cause, fled Maine nearly 40 years ago after being convicted of “constructive possession” of six marijuana cigarettes. He says he told the man who prosecuted him, Deputy Attorney General Dick Cohen, that he planned to fly to Israel rather than serve his prison sentence. Cohen, he says, indicated he would not seek to stop or apprehend him.

Through Gellers’ long, unsuccessful effort to overturn his conviction, his attorney, Hy Mayerson, kept Maine authorities abreast of Gellers’ address in Israel, and they made no effort to apprehend him there or on his subsequent visits back to the United States.

Gellers emigrated to Israel in 1971, embraced Judaism, lived on a kibbutz, a collectivist farming community, and adopted his Hebrew birth name: Tuvia Ben-Shmuel-Yosef. He was wounded in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, in which he served as a private in the infantry, and was later an officer in an armored unit. Wishing to practice law again, he also applied to the Israeli Bar, submitting full documentation of his conviction in Maine. On reviewing the case files, the principal legal assistant to the attorney general of Israel wrote: “The case is a catalogue of horrors – including, but not limited to, multiple violations of due process, manufactured evidence, clear efforts to ‘get him’ because he advocated unpopular ideas and defended unpopular clients.” Gellers was admitted to the Israeli bar without reservation.

As the 1980 land claims settlement came together he tried to sue the tribe for his 10 percent contingency fee, arguing that his former legal intern, Tom Tureen, had purloined and relied on his research to win the case. (Tureen denies this.) He was not successful.


In the early 1980s, he returned to the United States and settled in his native New York City. In 1989 he again disclosed the circumstances of his case to authorities at the U.S Circuit Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, before which he had been admitted to practice law in 1966. The court issued him a Certificate of Good Standing, allowing the supposed fugitive to practice law there.

Gellers – now Tuvia Ben-Shmuel-Yosef – is a rabbi living in Queens. He has not set foot in Maine since his final presentation to the Passamaquoddy at Indian Township in 1971, when he claims Tureen, his successor as tribal attorney, stole his land claims files. He fears he could be arrested if he returned to the Pine Tree State.

“These 50 years have been very, very painful years,” the rabbi said, noting that his controversial conviction and possible fugitive status have always hung over his head, waiting to be dropped on him by any opponent.

“It is a ‘Les Miserables’ story, and I am Jean Valjean,” he says, referring to the Victor Hugo novel. “It’s not simply a one-shot outrage, and when something like this is done it carries repercussions for life. These candlesticks are with me forever.”

He has never sought a pardon from a governor of Maine. Asked whether he would want one, he said: “Well, yes. Yes, that would be nice.”

Members of the Passamaquoddy tribe fish for elvers in Perry one night last spring. With the high resale price of “glass eels,” harvesting the Japanese delicacy has become an important source of income for many of the Passamaquoddy people. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer



long the shore of Lewey Lake, just north of “The Strip” at Indian Township, most of the camps built by that white landowner a half-century ago are still standing, right next to where the Indians staged their protest in 1964. The camp restaurant burned down years ago, and a residential home has been built on its footprint.

There are no signs or plaques or monuments pointing out the historic events that took place here 50 years ago this spring, nothing to mark the site of a protest that would unleash a chain of events leading to federal recognition for the Passamaquoddy, the historic land claims act, and all the years of struggle that followed.

No monuments save one, though you would never notice it or know what it was unless someone told you, or unless you were a Passamaquoddy Indian of a certain age.

It’s there, near the southern tree line: a gravel pile no taller than a man, covered in weeds, a jumble of materials deposited by a white man’s bulldozer that was finally stopped in its tracks.

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


NEXT WEEK: Look for the Epilogue to “Unsettled,” in which the struggle for justice continues. It’s all in the

Maine Sunday Telegram

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