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Unsettled: Passamaquoddy Tribe awaits constitutional reform

Filed Under: National
More on: maine, passamaquoddy

A view of the Passamaquoddy Reservation at Pleasant Point in Maine. Photo by Ken Gallagher / Wikipedia

The Portland Press Herald wraps up its Unsettled series with Chapter 29 about the need for a joint constitution for the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point and at Indian Township. An epilogue will be published this Sunday:
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.

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.

Get the Story:
‘We are getting stronger’ (The Portland Press Herald 7/27)

Over the Weekend:
Reservation leadership changes, though little else does (The Portland Press Herald 7/26)

Related Stories:
Unsettled: BIA questions Passamaquoddy forest management (7/25)
Unsettled Ch. 26: Passamaquoddy dealings cloaked in secrecy (7/24)
Unsettled: Free speech costs dearly at Passamaquoddy Tribe (7/23)
Unsettled: Questions linger on Passamaquoddy leadership (7/22)
Unsettled Ch. 23: Passamaquoddy leader indicted for stealing (7/21)
Unsettled Ch. 20: Passamaquoddy Tribe still lacks constitution (7/18)
Unsettled Ch. 19: Passamaquoddy Tribe restricts right to vote (7/17)
Report faults Maine over dealings with Passamaquoddy Tribe (7/16)

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