HOULTON, Maine — Three weeks into his first term the newly elected Maliseet representative to the Maine legislature is already working to forge productive communication bonds between his people and state government.
Henry John Bear, a member of the Houlton and Tobique Bands of Maliseets, is the first tribal member to hold the elected position which in the past had been an appointed office.
“I am looking forward to this legislative session,” Bear said Saturday. “The learning curve is steep but this is a challenge and an adventure [and] I am humbled by it all.”
Bear joins tribal representatives from the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddies as a nonvoting member of the Maine House.
The three can, however, introduce and sponsor legislation and Bear has already drafted 13 pieces of legislation, including a bill to designate a nonvoting representative seat for Maine’s Micmacs.
“I am happy with how I am being treated in Augusta,” Bear said.
“Everyone has treated me very well [and] right now I am trying to catch up with everybody.”
Bear has been appointed to the legislative health and human services committee and is looking forward to having an effect on health issues facing all Maine residents.
“I feel like I have hit the ground running,” he said. “There is a lot of work planned over this next session.”
A native of Lewiston, Bear spent a short time on the Maliseet reservation in Tobique before family circumstances sent him to foster care around Maine.
“We lived on food stamps, got what we could from the Salvation Army and never had a car or working television,” Bear said, adding he had to grow up without his mother. “I had to learn survival skills in the white people’s world.”
A good student, Bear enlisted in the United States Coast Guard when he was 17, where he met and married Violet Dotson. The two now have four grown children and eight grandchildren and operate Mother Bear Respite Care, a Maliseet respite care facility.
A longtime advocate for tribal rights, Bear earned his associates of arts degree in communication and business from the University of Maine at Presque Isle and his law degree from the University of New Brunswick.
He has worked as an advocate, attorney and as a municipal judge. When he was 23 Bear was elected president of the Hampshire Indian Council and three years later served as the president of Central Maine Indian Council. In 2001 he was elected as tribal councilor for the Maliseet Nation at Tobique.
In his role as tribal representative, Bear said he hopes to address issues surrounding economics, land, natural resources, unemployment, health, gaming, alternative energy, cross-border travel and traditional medicines.
“The only way for us to get anywhere is to keep close, two-way communication and trust between our Maliseet leaders and Maine’s leaders in Augusta,” Bear said.
His fellow representatives from both sides of the aisle are treating him as an equal voting member, Bear said.
“That surprised me,” he said. “I thought they would look at nonvoting and that would mean nonparticipating.”
Bear is looking forward to working for his people on a statewide level.
“I am humbled by the faith and confidence my tribal council, my chief and my elders have in me,” he said.