The Passamaquoddy Tribe
Donald Soctomah is perhaps the most recognized member of thePassamaquoddy tribe. He was the tribe's legislative representative to the State of Maine for four years from 1998 to 2002 and he is now the Director of the Tribal Historic Heritage Preservation Office. He, along with many others from the Passamaquoddy Tribe, also recently made a pivotal appearance on the PBS reality show "Colonial House," which was filmed on Passamaquoddy land along the coast.
Soctomah is always willing to discuss the Passamaquoddy way of life in order to create better understanding with the general public. He feels that lack of open communication has created misunderstandings of tribal life in the past.
The Passamaquoddies and their ancestors have lived in the region for over ten thousand years. Archaeologists have found artifacts dating back that long, and the tribe sees common threads linking those ancestors to the present day. For instance, three to five thousand years ago, the ancestors buried their dead with red ochre, a red iron mineral from the soil. This ancient tradition extends both forward and backward from that time in different forms.
Soctomah points out that the shoreline has moved back and forth from Millinocket outward to the entrance of the Gulf of Maine, well beyond the current shoreline, in the past 14- to 20,000 years. He says that village encampments during the early tribal period were probably on land that is now under the ocean. "This has been verified by a couple of (underwater) archaeological sites that have been found near Deer Island," he points out. "More and more, our oral history is being confirmed to the general public when new scientific finds are recorded."
The name "Passamaquoddy" itself is a European pronunciation of the word "Peskotomuhkati," which means "People who spear Pollock" in Passamaquoddy-Maliseet language. "The Passamaquoddy people were known for their ocean hunting skills," Soctomah explains.
"The original name most native groups across North America used for themselves was â€˜the people.'" he says. "For us it was â€˜skicin' (pronounced "SKI-jin") which means â€˜earth dwellers.'"
In the early twenty-first century, the lives of the 3200 Passamaquoddy citizens reflects both their ancient past and the European influence. Approximately 1,650 of them live on one or near one of two reservations, one located at Pleasant Point near Perry, and the other located at Indian Township next to Princeton. There is also a group of Passamaquoddy who live in New Brunswick on traditional tribal lands.
Many Pleasant Point citizens call that reservation by its Passamaquoddy name, "Sipayik" (pronounced Si-BYE-eek) Indian Township has not yet made a similar move toward the name "Motahkmikuk" (Med -AHK-mi-guk).
"Sipayik is easier for people to pronounce," Soctomah says. "There'll be a movement later (regarding Indian Township) we'll probably move toward calling it "Passamaquoddy Township" or something like that.
He says the tribe has the highest percentage of native language speakers north of Florida. Even so, the tradition is fading.
"Probably most people over fifty are close to 100% fluent," he says, but he laments, "it (fluency) drops off for younger people until probably only 5% of those under 21 are fluent. It has to be taught in the home as well as at school, so we have some work to do at home."
Like other locals, tribal parents find that their children often leave the area for work after graduation, although a greater number of Passamaquoddy young people are willing to stay and make their way within the local economy. Over 65% of the tribal citizens are under the age of 25.
Decisions for each reservation are still made by tribal councils, and the councils are democratically elected. A citizen must live on or be served by a reservation (living within twenty miles) to vote for that tribal council. This means that Passamaquoddy technically living off-reservation in Baileyville, Princeton, and Topsfield can still vote in tribal elections at Indian Township. Those in Calais and Eastport can vote at the Pleasant Point reservation.
Both reservations have their own police and fire departments. Misdemeanor charges on the reservation are handled by the tribal court, while felony charges are pressed by the State of Maine. Together the two local reservations have a Game Warden Department which regulates fishing and hunting.
Since both of the local reservations are comprised of Passamaquoddies, some might wonder why they have separate tribal governments. The reason goes back to 1852, when the whole tribe was settled at Pleasant Point. Half of the tribe wanted to continue the traditional way of living, governing themselves, and honoring their hereditary chiefs, while the other half wanted more European-style elections of leadership. One side decided to move to what is now called "Indian Township" so that both sides could choose their own way.
Both of these locations were ancient village sites of the Passamaquoddy. The ancient tribe moved seasonally from one to the other.
Tribal citizens are welcome to live on either reservation, and in fact families are often split between the two reservations. Donald Soctomah was originally from Sipayik (Pleasant Point) and moved to Indian Township.
A Joint Tribal Council makes decisions over issues that effect both tribes, like the treatment of the waters and the tribal forests. The tribe stewards three tracts of forest land presently: the Downeast Tract, which includes Indian Township, Pleasant Point and the blueberry barrens of Township 19. The Central Maine Tract is located in the Lakeville area. The third tract, in Western Maine, is near Jackman.
As mentioned above, tribal concerns are voiced to the state legislature by an individual who is elected from tribal members of both reservations, and his or her role is to voice the concerns of the tribe. The representatives may therefore introduce legislation, but they do not vote. Tribal members do have state voting representatives as well, however, because they also participate in elections in their state representative districts.
Why does the tribal representative not vote? The answer goes back to the genesis of the position itself. It arose from a role that is actually hundreds of years older than any of the European settlements. North American tribes always sent each other representatives for the purposes of trading goods and making peace. When the Europeans arrived and Massachusetts was organized, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes extended this tradition to the newly formed government. The position was recognized by Massachusetts, and was later also formalized by the Maine government when the new state split from Massachusetts in 1820.
When asked what is the leading misunderstanding nonnatives have about the tribe, Soctomah is able to say without hesitation. "The land claims settlement didn't make anybody rich in the tribe, but a lot of people think so. Our first concern was the return of our land. We received less than 1/100th of one percent of the land, and we had to buy it back with the land claims money. Most people don't realize that."
A two-page article can do little more than introduce readers to the subject of Passamaquoddy life and heritage. Those who want to know more can visit the Downeast Heritage Center in Calais and the Passamaquoddy Museum at Pleasant Point. Information is available on the web at wabanaki.com,downeastheritage.org, and passamaquoddy.com.