A Tribe Divided
Route 190, the lone road to the island of Eastport, cuts the Passamaquoddy village of Sipayik in two. The indian police strictly enforce the 35 m.p.h. speed limit, but everyone around here knows the cops are watching, so only white tourists from away get busted. As they should.
Sipayik, like most of Washington County, is a mix of beauty and bleak. The reservation’s land- and seascape is sweetgrass and clam flats, fish weirs and kelp-covered ledges. The panorama of rocky Canadian cliffs and American shoreline constantly changes, thanks to the quick and powerful tides of Passamaquoddy Bay and Halfmoon Cove. Eagles and osprey, whales and porpoises, all live in the ‘hood. A far cry from the desperate and dusty reservations of the American West.
The People of the Dawn, dark-haired and bronze-skinned, are talented and creative, polite and friendly despite centuries of being screwed over. Besides the genocide of years past, the Passamaquoddy have to deal with the modern plagues of racism, substance abuse, joblessness, and their own government’s bureaucratic corruption. Compared to all that, the traffic on Route 190 seems minor, but the symbolism looms large.
The natives survive by adaptation, like many who live in Washington County. Some Passamaquoddy string together seasonal jobs: blueberries, wreath-making, clamming, wrinkling, or tending weirs. Others work hard as builders and teachers, sailors and healers. A growing number have turned their traditional crafts into art, weaving decorative ash baskets and building birch-bark canoes desired by collectors and museums. And still, almost everyone struggles.
During these tough times, though, Sipayik and Washington County seem recession-proof. Around here, more than 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. The region has the highest unemployment rate in the state, along with the lowest per capita income. Can’t get much worse for those already on the bottom rung of the ladder. When you’ve always been poor, an economic collapse doesn’t hurt as much.
And when you’ve always been poor, you’re more susceptible to get-rich-quick schemes. The tribe is no exception. The ongoing scam on the reservation is to build a liquid natural gas terminal on the sacred (to some) piece of ledge called Split Rock. As you might expect, the proposal has divided the community. Five years of lies and half-truths make the LNG saga too complicated to fully explain, but the song is sure to sound familiar: a couple out-of-state shysters promise millions and deliver nothing but shiny baubles, empty promises, and trouble to those who oppose the plan.
The reasons to fight the LNG terminal are many. Transforming a seaside village into the port of entry for a soon-to-be-scarce energy product is shortsighted. LNG, a non-renewable resource, is extracted in faraway, third-world lands and hauled across the oceans in mega-ships. The business is notoriously fickle, with prices and delivery connected to global demands and decisions. And as Maine dreams about green energy, building a gazillion dollar LNG facility is just plain stupid.
Besides, the stench and noise of offloading the gaseous cargo in Sipayik won’t be the smell and sound of money. Only a handful of jobs would be created, despite the many dangers and hassles connected to the project. And the locals wouldn’t even benefit from cheaper energy, because the LNG would head right into a pipeline, destined to heat, power and cook for Massachusetts customers. That is, until the industry implodes and the indians are stuck with a useless terminal of vacant piers and empty pipes.
The answer to the tribe’s financial woes is quite simple. Build a hydro-electric project and turn the constantly surging energy of the bay into money and power. Rip off the white man. With Bangor Hydro selling juice for 18 cents per kilowatt hour, there are plenty of potential customers. The tribe needs to act fast, though. At least three entities in Washington County are currently developing their own plans to harness the tides. Pretty soon, Big Energy will notice and the natives could lose another resource to Whitey.
The road between Sipayik and Eastport is paved atop a series of earthen dams built, poorly, in 1935 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Quoddy Dam hydro project, which failed because of political infighting. At the time, there was no thought given to the dam’s impact on marine life or the Passamaquoddy. If the indians get rich from hydro, they should tear down Route 190 and let the sea flow again. If Eastporters still want to visit the mainland, let ’em rebuild the old Toll Bridge into the town of Perry. Sounds fair to me, especially since they’ve been using Sipayik, for free, for 75 years.