KATHRYN OLMSTEAD

Aroostook Micmacs rebuilding nation with eye on tradition

Posted Oct. 11, 2012, at 12:49 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 13, 2012, at 12:06 p.m.
Micmac Chief Rick Getchell at the August 2012 Mawiomi gathering in Caribou
Jane Caulfield
Micmac Chief Rick Getchell at the August 2012 Mawiomi gathering in Caribou
Kathryn Olmstead
Kathryn Olmstead

Every year, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs gathers the third weekend of August for a three-day celebration called the Mawiomi. Traditional dances, foods, crafts and ceremonies generate unity within the tribe and introduce Micmac culture to the greater community. This year the event was blessed.

Five eagles flew over the Mawiomi of 2012. A sacred symbol in Native American culture, the eagle represents a connection to the Creator, signifying wisdom, vision and courage.

The appearance of five eagles over the gathering in Caribou reinforced a growing optimism within the Aroostook Band of Micmacs as it looks to a future imbued with cultural wisdom from the past.

“We are literally rebuilding the Micmac nation,” said Chief Rick Getchell in an interview. “We look to the past as our present,” he said, describing a comprehensive strategic plan to redesign the community within the framework of cultural traditions.

With economic development, housing, health and governance as priorities, the plan is a blueprint for future generations of Micmac people. Land and its natural resources are key components, enabling members to exercise inherent hunting and fishing rights, to grow their own food and to live close to nature.

“Our money is owning a lake — water resources, land. It’s all you have when the money is cut — you’re a rich person,” Getchell, said, adding the tribe could take the lead in demonstrating how to manage and conserve natural resources.

“My million dollars is not a casino, it’s a lake somewhere,” he said. “Casinos will fold up eventually. The land you stand on lasts forever.”

The Aroostook Band of Micmacs won congressional recognition in 1991, having been excluded from the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement between the federal government and Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet tribes. The 1991 Micmac Settlement Act awarded the tribe $900,000 to purchase land within its jurisdiction through negotiations with the state of Maine. Though she did not have the exact amounts, Jane Caulfield, director of economic development for the tribe, said the Micmacs have purchased about 3,000 acres and still have some of the $900,000 left.

The tribe has sought to buy land that is relevant to its culture for housing, farming, hunting and fishing.

The 1,200 Micmacs in the Aroostook County service area are about evenly divided between the Littleton area in southern Aroostook and central and northern regions, including Caribou and Presque Isle. Tribal development initiatives in one area are mirrored in the other.

“The beauty of having a plan endorsed by everyone is you can act, you can be transparent and get things done. You know the expectations. If it’s in line with our plan, we’re on it,” Getchell said. “We have been blessed with opportunity. We are taking advantage of opportunity.”

Getchell has worked for the tribe all his life and was the youngest tribal chief in Maine when first elected in the 1990s at age 24. He was elected again in 2011, having assessed the needs of the tribe and identified ways to solve problems. The strategic plan grew from data obtained in a survey of tribal members that identified major issues, such as substandard housing, lack of jobs and job skills, obesity, diabetes and general health and well-being.

Both elders and young people are central to the rebuilding process. Students are encouraged to pursue careers that will serve the tribe and qualify them for future leadership. Elders are the source of knowledge about traditional skills, crafts, medicinal plants, rituals and language.

Caulfield praised Getchell’s leadership. “He has an extremely great vision and we all want to help him,” she said. “His openness has people coming to the door. There is change in the wind.”

One example of change is Micmac Farms and Trading Company. Located on Route 1 between Caribou and Presque Isle, two 4,400-square-foot buildings sit on an 18-acre farm. One building will house a farm market and commercial kitchen, the other a trout hatchery and cold storage.

Started in 2009 as a large garden to address health and income issues in the tribe, the farm expanded to include several thousand fruit and landscape trees, 10 acres of row and cover crops, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and seedlings for Christmas trees. While the primary mission of the farm is to provide fresh, healthy and affordable food for tribal members, the store also will be open to the public during the growing season, offering native-made crafts as well as fresh produce.

“It makes total sense,” Caulfield said, describing how the tribe decided to grow the garden into a four-season farm and natural-resource-based economic development project to create jobs and generate income. The idea evolved as the U.S. Department of Agriculture was responding to a groundswell of public support for building local food systems.

Two USDA grants and $80,000 in tribal matching funds helped launch the project. USDA Rural Development awarded the tribe a Rural Enterprise Grant of $492,363 in September 2009 to construct the buildings, and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service provided $31,739 for training to produce, manage and market agricultural products.

Caulfield said the farm also has sparked enthusiasm and partnerships throughout Maine.

The Broad Reach Fund enabled the tribe to hire a farm manager and the Northern Maine Development Commission supported creation of a business plan. Vouchers from the Maine Senior FarmShare Program and the Micmac Health Department enable elders and many Micmac households to purchase healthy food from the farm.

Orono-based Maine Rural Partners won two USDA grants that will help Micmac Farms become a sustainable business. One provides technical assistance to develop programs such as community-supported agriculture, branding, youth mentorship and entrepreneurship training. The other grant designates the farm store as a demonstration site for a heat pump that recovers heat from the air and saves on heating costs.

Micmac Farms is tangible evidence of new strength within the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and heightened visibility within Aroostook County.

“There is a lot of unity.” Getchell said. “Our vision is not a quick and easy one, but a secure one.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story contained an error. The Micmacs have purchased about 3,000 acres, not 300,000 acres.

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