by Nicholas N. Smith
St. Paul’s, Brunswick
Diocesan Committee on Indian Relations
In 1950 I was a history major at the University of Maine. My advisor suggested that I work on Maine Indian history. There was little published material available. I decided that I would have to go the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy to learn about their history. One day I went to see Penobscot Chief Albert Nicola and observed his high school grandson reading a state directive to him. Education on Indian Island had little improvement since 1840 when Chief Joseph Polis struggled to improve Maine Indian education. Passamaquoddy schools were no better and I heard many, many complaints about it. I took the complaints to Gov. Cross who listened and took some action. Their present day schools didn’t get started until about another 30 years.
In the 1940s returning veterans saw their rights strangled by the Maine Welfare Dept that had been charged to care for Indians. In 1957 a young Chief Francis Ranco, a former Marine, was determined to tackle Maine Indian right. With a Marine buddy, now a lawyer, he promised to take the Penobscot case to the UN. International Law required that had to meet minimum governmental requirements for a nation. The Penobscot did not meet these requirements. I was asked to do research to remake the Penobscot government meet the standard. The UN Human Rights Committee’s only power was to recommend that the Human Rights Committee accept the Penobscot’s case. It took 25 years for the case to come before all the UN member nations. They voted it down. A generation passed. Who remembered?
Employment opportunities took me elsewhere. Each change in job and place opened up new opportunities to support Maine Indians. I felt that while I could forget the Indians, a Power much stronger was leading me on to greater and wider opportunities to get to know them better and support them. One way to support them was to write articles in an effort to educate the public including a column in the Bar Harbor Times. I spoke to school classes including Indian historical events that occurred in their region, and offered information not included in their school texts.
I became more impressed with a people who have been documented as living in Maine for 12,000 years and who maintained environmental standards guaranteeing an abundance of food for the following year. There was no need for game laws until after the greedy, wasteful strangers first as visitors and as settlers on their lands. Successful Indian hunters cut what they wanted from their quarry and took the rest to a bark structure where any one needing food was welcome to take what they wanted. Still today food is commonly shared, especially with the elders and disabled. Although the young hunter was trained to be self-sufficient, he was to take his place in a community noted for sharing and caring.
When I learned that our Episcopal Diocese of Maine had created a Committee for Indian Relations I happily joined it thinking how much more could be done by a group than by a solitary person. It seems to me that joining such a group could be compared to a person joining a baseball club knowing nothing about the game. Maine Indians have proudly retained their customs and traditions into the twenty-first century. One must be willing to learn to respect the differences of their way of life just as the ball player must learn how to play his position but also create team togetherness with all the other members of the team.