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Micmac Indians Seek to Reclaim Their Past

Wide support from the state and other Indian groups bolsters hopes of official US recognition for Maine's Micmacs

THIS fall, the Micmac Indians, who have lived in Maine's far north since long before whites came here, hope they will finally be officially recognized as native Americans. The United States House of Representatives is expected to act by October on a bill that would recognize the Micmacs and set up a $900,000 land-acquisition fund for the tribe. The same bill passed the Senate in May.

The Micmacs, who were left out of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, are among the most traditional Indians of the eastern United States.

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Most of Maine's 550 to 700 Micmacs still live by the time-honored cycle of seasonal work that sustained generations of their ancestors. They harvest blueberries in August, potatoes in the fall, and fiddlehead ferns - a local delicacy - in the spring. They make and sell Christmas wreaths and the pounded brown ash baskets for which their people are famous.

The Micmacs tend to keep to themselves, often living in isolated colonies along the back roads of this cold and thinly populated part of Maine. And although many of them are of mixed blood, almost half speak the Micmac language.

In part due to their isolation and their traditional lifestyle, the Micmacs are starkly impoverished and are beset by social problems. Their life expectancy is 45. Almost 70 percent of Micmac families live on less than $10,000 a year. In a region where winter temperatures are often the lowest in the continental US, many Micmacs live in uninsulated shacks. The school dropout rate is over 90 percent, and alcoholism, by some estimates, affects seven out of 10 Micmacs.

``The self-esteem of our people is very low,'' says Mary Philbrook, president of Maine's only Micmac group, the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians. ``It seems like no one cares about us and sometimes some of us don't care much about ourselves either. We have to change that.''

Under the 1980 act, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people, who together number about 4,000, were awarded $81.5 million to compensate for lands illegally taken from them. And the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians received federal recognition and a $900,000 trust fund to be used for the purchase of land.

But the Micmacs, whose history in Maine closely parallels that of their Maliseet neighbors, received nothing. In fact, because the 1980 settlement absolved the government of any further claims ``by all other Indians in the state,'' in effect it legislated the Micmacs out of existence in terms of group rights.

Soon after the 1980 settlement the Maine Department of Indian Affairs was abolished, and the Micmacs lost winter fuel assistance and most of the other benefits they had received as state-recognized Indians prior to 1980.

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``We weren't ready in 1980, and we lost out,'' Ms. Philbrook says. ``We were too poor then to even have a lawyer, so we were just forgotten. But our time is coming now.''

She is convinced that federal recognition will help. ``We aren't looking for monthly checks or a free ride,'' she says, ``although we do need the health benefits that we'd have with recognition. In the long run I think the most important thing will be the trust fund for land. We want to move toward self-sufficiency, and we feel that with land of our own we can build on our traditions toward that goal.''

After the 1980 land claims settlement excluded them, the Micmacs sought help from the state's legal aid agency, Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Pine Tree attorney Nan Heald of Portland, who represented the Micmacs through most of the 1980s, explains that during the negotiations that led to the settlement the Interior Department set up a small fund to investigate the history and the claims of the Micmacs and the Maliseets.

With help from Ms. Heald and grants from the Administration of Native Americans, a federal agency that assists ``nonstatus'' Indians, the Aroostook Band was formally organized in 1981. The vital work of documenting their claim was carried out by Dutch anthropologist Harald Prins and his American wife, Bunny McBride, who served for several years as directors of research and development for the band.

``Before we started this work, anthropology seemed academic and distant,'' Mr. Prins says, ``but this was different. It was helping a people who were finding themselves and reclaiming their past.''

Today, the total Micmac population is around 15,000, most of them living in Canada. Prins's research shows that the original Micmac territory included northern and eastern Maine, as well as the west bank of the St. John River.

Prins found evidence that the band played an active role on the side of the colonists in the Revolutionary War. In 1775, Prins says, ``the Micmac and their Maliseet allies immediately offered Gen. George Washington their support.'' The warriors were later paid by the government for their service.

Support for federal recognition of the Micmacs is strong. Maine's four-member congressional delegation has spearheaded the drive on Capitol Hill, state lawmakers have urged recognition, and Gov. John McKernan (R) also backs the Micmac effort. Church groups, service clubs, and many Aroostook County town governments have sent letters to Congress and the White House in support of the Micmacs.

And Maine's three other Indian groups ``have given us lots of help and encouragement,'' Philbrook says.

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), however, is on record as strongly opposing Micmac recognition. The bureau says the Micmacs should use BIA procedures for seeking recognition instead of ``circumventing the standard recognition process'' by asking Congress for help.

Micmac counsel Heald responds: ``The BIA refuses to look at the unique situation of the Micmac and how the 1980 land claims settlement seems to block their way to recognition except by direct congressional action.''

Sheryl Begalio, an aide to Maine Congressman Joseph Brennan (D), says that ``there is broad bipartisan support for the Micmac bill in Congress.''

And Micmac president Philbrook is optimistic that the bill will pass and receive Bush's signature. ``The BIA is against us and some people are afraid that President Bush might veto this bill,'' she says. ``But I think he's going to listen to us and all the people who have gone to bat for us. Our case is simple, and justice is on our side.''

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