BANGOR, Maine — Maine’s tribes face a balancing act in their push to become more economically independent.
They need federal government funds to help spark new business and entrepreneurship, but are determined to avoid long-term dependence on federal money, tribal leaders said Tuesday during a conference focused on the economic state of Maine’s tribes and the future of their partnerships with banks and federal agencies.
Officials from the Penobscots, Passamaquoddys, Micmacs and Maliseets spoke to an audience of about 120 representatives from the tribes, government agencies, banks, nonprofits and economic development groups about where Maine’s tribes stand fiscally today and what their plans are for strengthening their communities’ economies.
The key to opening up new opportunities is bringing jobs into communities, tribal leaders said.
“In my opinion, welfare is the root of all evil,” said Clayton Cleaves, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point.
Each tribe struggles with high unemployment rates. More than 30 percent of the Penobscot Nation’s Indian Island residents are without jobs, according to Penobscot Tribal Chief Kirk Francis.
The job situation is even more pressing for Passamaquoddy members in Washington County. More than 50 percent of them are unemployed, according to Tribal Governor Joseph Socobasin, and that number might be closer to 60 percent or 70 percent, he said.
Tribes want to shed the image that they’re “tax-takers,” Francis said, and instead become stronger economic contributors. To do that, tribes have to give their members the opportunity to move away from federal aid.
The solutions are industry and jobs, the leaders agreed, but each tribe has its own ideas about what those occupations might be.
Cleaves said the Passamaquoddys are working on a tidal power project and looking into wind turbine energy production. The tribe also plans to start harvesting and selling maple syrup, which Cleaves called an “untapped” resource, drawing chuckles from the audience.
The Aroostook Band of Micmac holds farming as a high economic priority, according to Tribal Chief Richard Getchell. The Passamaquoddys are looking into bottling and shipping water from their land.
The Penobscot Nation has started sending guides from the tribe on moose and bear hunts with Maine residents and visitors as a way of spreading education about tribal culture and generating jobs and income.
But to get efforts like these off the ground, the tribes often need a boost from federal funds and they need to know how to navigate federal bureaucracy to get the push they need.
Competition for limited federal funds is intense. For every grant and loan, Maine’s tribes are competing not only among themselves, but also among the more than 560 recognized tribes in the U.S.
“No one really takes a look at how devastating that is for us,” Getchell said.
By the time the funds are distributed the amounts are usually small, so it’s hard for communities to grow, and reliance on the funds persists.
“It’s hard to believe the politics could muddy up economics sometimes, but it happens,” Francis said, drawing more laughter from the crowd.
After the morning session with the four tribal leaders, the conference attendees broke up into other sessions focused on topics ranging from government contracting and bonding to building work forces to cross-tribal collaboration.
The conference was organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and was one of six regional forums held across the United States.