VIENNA, Maine — When Edward Hinckley first visited Maine’s Native American reservations after becoming the state’s first cabinet-level commissioner of Indian affairs in 1965, he found tar-paper shacks, no running water and homes with only wood stoves for heat.
Hinckley, who died Nov. 12 at age 77, told the impoverished Native Americans he wanted to help, but they’d heard that before.
“We didn’t trust him when he first came,” said James Sappier, a former Penobscot Nation chief who knew Hinckley in the late 1960s. “We didn’t trust anyone like Indian agents or state people, and it was because of history. But Ed’s background was really what made him significant. I can’t think of another person who could have done what Ed did.”
Hinckley’s tenure as Maine’s first commissioner of Indian affairs lasted only four years, but his influence was decisive. Among his accomplishments was helping Maine’s tribes qualify for federal funding for housing, water and other infrastructure projects that over the years have vastly improved the quality of life on the reservations, according to Sappier. But Hinckley’s larger contribution was convincing the state and federal government of their obligations to the tribes in Maine.
“Finally getting water, sewer and housing helped move the tribe into a different arena of tribalism and government,” said Sappier. “Today with the government, the tribes are quite astute. That would not have happened if it were not for the Ed Hinckleys of the world.”
After leaving his cabinet position, Hinckley moved to the Department of Education and then to the Department of Human Services, where he worked on behalf of children with disabilities. He co-founded the Maine Association for Infant Mental Health, who last year gave Hinckley its first-annual Edward Hinckley Award for being “a pioneer, leader, and catalyst in innovation and collaboration on behalf of children and their families at risk.”
According to those who knew him best — his wife, Priscilla, his son, Kee and his sister, Lois McCarthy — one of Hinckley’s life-long passions was working with children. After graduating from Harvard University with an anthropology degree and a stint in the U.S. Army, one of his first jobs was teaching on a Navajo indian reservation in the days when that meant assimilating Native Americans to Christianity and stripping them of their culture and traditions.
“He thought it was a flawed system. He was against it,” said Priscilla, who married Hinckley in 1959. “We both were. We wanted to get out of that atmosphere.”
Hinckley’s passion and greatest attribute, according to his family, was his ability to solve problems, no matter how complex, by pulling people together toward a common goal. In 1976 he organized an initiative to send a disadvantaged child from every Maine county aboard a tall ship for a sail from Newport, R.I., to New York City.
“That was no small feat,” said Kee Hinckley of his father. “Some of those kids had never been out of the state before. One of them became a cook in the Merchant Marines. I think he loved to pull pieces together from all over, find a solution and see what grew out of it.”
That ability showed itself in family life countless times, said Kee. Hinckley and his wife once visited North Conway, N.H., and Priscilla told him on the way home that she’d seen something she wished she’d purchased.
“He remembered the name of the store across the street, called them and had someone go ask about it,” said Kee. “It didn’t matter how complicated it was. He wanted to solve problems.”
As Hinckley’s health faded in recent years as he battled Alzheimer’s disease, he once asked Priscilla what was happening to him. A voracious reader who would often read inspiring passages aloud to whomever would listen, he’d gotten to the point that when he got toward the bottom of the page, he couldn’t remember what he’d read at the top.
“He wanted to keep working for Native American causes,” said Lois McCarthy, his sister. “He repeatedly asked Priscilla if there wasn’t something he could be doing that would benefit their living conditions, their opportunities. When he came to recognize his inability to carry on what he had once been able to do he would adjure Priscilla, ‘I can’t do it but you can.’”
Memorial services for Hinckley are being planned for December 1 in his hometown of Vienna. For details, contact McCarthy by email at email@example.com. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Hinckley’s name to the American Indian College Fund, 8333 Greenwood Blvd., Denver, Colo. 80221.