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U.S. Federal Indian policy: Passamaquoddy Resistance

Copyright 1995 Laura Brooks
University of Maine -- Orono, Maine
Footnotes and Reading List appear at the end of the text


During the summer of 1994, I was one of twenty-five American Indian students selected to attend an eight week pre-law summer institute, sponsored by the American Indian Law Center at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. One of the courses that intrigued me the most was Indian Law. This course gave me an overwhelming bird's eye view of federal Indian policy relating to all Indian tribes of the United States.

Now that I am back home in Maine, my focus has shifted to my own tribe, the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Since I start Law school this fall at the University of Maine in Portland, I know I probably will not receive the opportunity to study Indian Law in an academic capacity, as it relates to my tribe. After I finish Law school, I hope to be able to represent the members of my tribe. For this reason, I feel it is very important for me to know the history of my tribe, as well as to know how both the federal and state governments have chosen throughout history to deal with the Passamaquoddys. That is why I have chosen to document federal Indian policy and the ways that the Passamaquoddys responded to such intrusions on their way of life. For reasons to be seen, more emphasis is placed on activity during the last thirty years.


For several hundred years, even before the birth of this nation, people have struggled with the "Indian Problem" -- who are the Indians, and what rights do they have. As simple as these questions may seem, the answers present a complicated jumble of more questions and ambiguous answers. State and federal governments have tried to provide answers with countless laws and policies, oftentimes resulting in serious state and federal conflicts.

The federal government's attempt to deal with Indians and tribes can be best understood by following its history of federal Indian policy. This history can be broken down into six distinctive time periods: removal, reservations, allotment/assimilation, reorganization, termination/relocation, and self-determination. Indian tribes all over the United States struggled to resist such policies which threatened to destroy their familial bonds and traditional ways. The Passamaquoddy Tribe resisted no less than these other tribes, albeit in its own separate way.

Colonial Times to 1820

During colonization, Great Britain dealt with Indian tribes as foreign sovereign nations, even going so far as to make treaties with some tribes. As colonies grew and as colonists encroached upon Indian land, Great Britain took on the position as protector of the tribes from the colonists. (1)

With the emergence of the new United States, land-hunger issues complicated matters. The federal government took on the position that Indian affairs, in the hands of the state, would only result in further encroachment on Indian land; so instead, it chose to place Indian affairs in the hands of the central government.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution granted Congress the sole right to regulate commerce with the Indian tribes. A series of Trade and Intercourse Acts (1790-1834) established boundaries of Indian land and prohibited non-Indians (including states) from taking/settling on Indian lands (through purchase or treaty, etc.) without federal approval. Indian Agents, appointed by the federal government, acted as liaisons between the federal government and the tribes. (2)

During colonization, the Passamaquoddy Tribe was dealing with French and English rivalries, colonists, missionaries, traders and disease. (3) One incredibly important event occurring during this policy period was the Treaty of 1794, signed between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Basically, the treaty stipulated that the tribe would surrender all claims to land in Massachusetts in exchange for 23,000 acres at Indian Township and ten acres at Pleasant Point. (4) Keep in mind that this treaty was signed after the enactment of the Trade and Intercourse Acts, which held that no treaties could be made with the Indians, except with federal approval. There was no federal approval with this treaty.

Indian Removal: 1820 to 1850

Despite the Trade and Intercourse Acts passed by Congress to "protect" Indian lands and peoples, the hunger for land by non-Indians and states pushed on. The concept of "removal" of the tribes to land beyond (west of) the Mississippi grew with federal support.

A series of court cases showed a Supreme Court, headed by Justice John Marshall, "sympathetic" to the Indians' plight. The Court espoused the view that Indian tribes had an "original Indian title" to the land they occupied. This meant that as long as the tribes stayed on that land, it was theirs to occupy and do as they wished; but once they left that land, it reverted back to the federal government. Additionally, "Indian title" meant that the federal government held title to the land as owner, so the tribes had no power to sell the land they occupied. Forsaking this "Indian title," a great many of the tribes east of the Mississippi were forced west in order to accommodate the settlers' hunger for land. (5)

Perhaps one of the reasons Maine tribes were not so affected by Indian removal was their remoteness. Originally part of Massachusetts, Maine officially became a state in 1820. Even though Maine was supposed to follow the conditions of the 1794 treaty Massachusetts signed with the Passamaquoddys, Maine ignored the treaty. Over time, 15,000 of the 23,000 acres reserved by Massachusetts for the Passamaquoddy Tribe was taken and sold, mostly to lumber companies, without Passamaquoddy consent. The state of Maine kept this money, never compensating the Passamaquoddys for the land sales. The state also made hunting and fishing laws applicable to Indians on their own land. Furthermore, the state appointed greedy and unlawful Indian agents to oversee the disbursement of state funds for Indian needs. (6) More often than not, the Indian agent could do what he wished with the money, such as giving it to the families who could do the most things for him in return.

In 1821, the state sent a Protestant Reverend to Pleasant Point, in order to set up a school. A split occurred at Pleasant Point over schooling and religion. Some of the Passamaquoddys chose to move, and in 1851 Peter Dana Point (Indian Township) was established as a Roman Catholic community. The treaty of reconciliation was signed between the two sides in 1852, which was an agreement stating that even though they had differences, they still had many common goals and they should try to work together to accomplish their goals. (7)

The state of Maine harbored a very hostile anti-Indian sentiment against Maine Indians. In 1842, Maine courts described Indians as charity cases and imbeciles, subject to paternal control by the state. (8) The concept of protection first established by the British throne was still alive and flourishing at the state level. As a result, between 1821 and 1839 the Maine legislature allowed timber harvesting of Passamaquoddy land, which violated the 1794 treaty. Later, the state sold more land without compensation to the Passamaquoddys. Any money that was put in trust for the Indians was either spent by the state or went to the Indian agents. (9) Impoverished, the Passamaquoddys still tried to nourish their communities spiritually by holding annual celebrations, elaborate funeral wakes and other social events. (10)

Movement to the Reservations: 1850 to 1887

Settlers continued westward in their quest for land. Removal had pushed many Indians west and now settlers wanted this land, too. Tribes were forced to cede their land and were restricted to specific reserves of land. Reservation schools, first set up in 1865, were headed by religious organizations in an attempt to "Christianize" the Indians. Off-reservations boarding schools were established in 1878 for the purpose of getting the children away from their families and tribal traditional ways of life. (11)

The Passamaquoddys continued to live on the land that had not been ceded by the 1794 treaty, making a living by hunting, fishing, trapping, and craft making. Around the 1860s, the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy took over control of the school at Peter Dana Point. The nuns had no teaching certificates, the books used were extremely old and usually the children played beano instead of studied. The entire educational system was very anti-Indian, encouraging the children to move off the reservation. (12)

Allotments and Attempted Assimilation: 1887 to 1934

The General Allotment Act of 1887 was passed with the concept that if Indians were given individual plots of land, they would farm that land and assimilate into white culture. Allotted parcels of land were given to families, and the excess lands were sold off. This resulted in a disastrous loss of Indian Land, from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million in 1934 (20 million of which was desert). In 1924, Congress passed a law giving U.S. citizenship to all Indians born in the U.S., (13) but individual states could still prohibit them from voting. (14)

While Congress was busy reducing the Indians' land base, the state of Maine determined in 1892 that the Passamaquoddy Tribe no longer existed, and therefore it could not make laws, treaties or punish crimes, and the tribe was completely subject to state laws. (15) Even in education, the sole goal of Indian educators was to eliminate all traces of Indianness in the children. (16)

The 1930s brought the Great Depression and a further loss of the few available jobs for Passamaquoddys. As devastating as this could have been, the Passamaquoddy tribal members enjoyed a greater closeness by sharing amonst themselves what little they had in order to survive. (17)

Reorganization and Preservation: 1934 to 1953

Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, based on the concept that the Allotment Act had been a complete failure. This new Act protected the land base of the tribes and helped them in self-government. It ended allotment and restored the surplus lands (those that had not been already sold off) to the Indians. (18) The Act also encouraged tribes to adopt constitutions and by laws, subject to votes by the tribal members. This concept of self-government, however, was still subject to the approval of the federal government.

Termination and Relocation: 1953 to 1968

A number of tribes were terminated by Congress. This meant they no longer existed as a tribe, they were subject to state laws and their lands were sold off. In addition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs encouraged Indians to leave the reservation under its Relocation Program. Because of the high unemployment rates on the reservation, BIA offered grants to those Indians who moved to urban areas. This BIA action simply displaced the unemployed Indians and encouraged their feelings of alienation in the big cities. (19)

In Maine, the 1950s and 1960s saw big changes for the Indians. Maine granted Indians the right to vote in 1954, the last state in the nation to do so, although the Indians did not receive "full franchise" to vote until 1967. (20) The 1950s and 1960s represented dark times for the Passamaquoddys: unemployment, dependence on state aid, horrible living conditions and overcrowding. Yet still, the families persevered, all the while cultivating their strong family ties. With the coming of the television to the reservation, the Passamaquoddys were able to witness the civil rights activity in the South. The Passamaquoddy people started asking themselves, "what about our rights?" (21)

Also during the 1960s, the Passamaquoddy Tribe realized it was entitled to federal money because its people were so poor. The tribe started receiving federal aid, such as EPA grants for water and sewage systems and HUD grants for adequate housing. (22)

In 1964, a non-Indian tried to build cabins on Passamaquoddy land. A group of men and women staged a sit-in at the site and were arrested. Don Gellers, the attorney representing them, prepared to file suit by the Passamaquoddys against the state of Maine for payment of land taken without compensation in violation of the 1794 treaty. Because of certain procedural laws, the Passamaquoddys were required to file against the state of Massachusetts instead of Maine. Three days after the filing, Gellers was arrested for possession of marijuana and the case did not make it to court. (23)

In 1968, the Georgia Pacific lumber company began cutting timber from Passamaquoddy land with state approval but without tribal consent. The Passamaquoddy Tribe appealed to the company and to its crews to no avail. So a group of Passamaquoddys dressed up in traditional war attire (feathers and paint) and staged an attack on the crews. The cutting crew ran away in fear, leaving behind thousands of dollars in wood-cutting equipment. The Passamaquoddys confiscated this equipment and Georgia Pacific was forced into negotiations. The result of this surprising confrontation was a resurgence of tribal self-respect and pride. (24)

Self-Determination: 1968 to Present

In 1968, Congress passed the Indian Civil Right Act, which gave Indians the same rights that non-Indian Americans enjoyed under the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, press, and religion. In 1970, President Nixon issued a statement allowing tribes to manage their own affairs with the greatest degree of autonomy possible. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 allowed tribes to administer federal Indian programs themselves. (25)

With its new feeling of empowerment, the Passamaquoddy Tribe forged on. In 1969, the state of Maine cut off aid for Passamaquoddy children (milk) and elderly (medical supplies). The Passamaquoddys retaliated by blocking off Route One through Indian Township and charging fees for cars to pass by. $1.00 for cars and $2.00 for trucks. Suddenly, state aid was restored and the Passamaquoddys ended the blockade. Even though confrontation is not a traditional value of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, it worked quite effectively in this circumstance. (26)

After Gellers' representation of the tribe ended, the tribe hired attorney Tom Tureen, who was fresh out of law school. He believed that the 1794 treaty was null and void and he wanted to base the tribe's claim on the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act of Congress, which stipulated that no sale of Indian land was valid without authority of the federal government. In 1975, Justice Grignoux decided the matter in federal district court. He said the Passamaquoddys were entitled to protection under the Trade and Intercourse Act and the federal government would have to sue the state of Maine for taking Passamaquoddy land. This caused quite an uproar. Maine politicians publicly fostered a hostile anti-Indian sentiment. The state of Maine claimed that it had jurisdiction over Maine Indians and they were not entitled to any federal Indian benefits. The Carter administration entered the scene as mediator.

A settlement was reached in 1980, which stipulated that the Passamaquoddy Tribe's claims of original Indian title to 12.5 million acres of land in Maine be extinguished in return for $81.5 million for Maine Indians. The Passamaquoddy Tribe received $26.8 to buy 150,000 acres of land in Maine, and $13.5 million to be held in trust by the federal government with its interest distributed to each member. In addition, the Passamaquoddy Indians would be eligible for all federal Indian benefits, and the tribe had the right to govern itself. (27)


Due to the remoteness of the Passamaquoddy reservation in Washington County, Maine, the tribe was able to escape many destructive federal Indian policies. In all reality, though, the tribe's biggest threat has not traditionally been the federal government, but rather the state of Maine's hostile anti-Indian administration.

Even though the Passamaquoddy people were not traditionally a "warring" tribe, history has shown that when the situation calls for more drastic and confrontational actions, the Passamaquoddy are ready and willing to fight for what is rightfully theirs. The Passamaquoddys have much to be proud of. They should now stand and fight as vehemently in asserting their tribal sovereignty as they did in fighting for compensation for the land stolen by the state of Maine.

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1 William C. Canby, Jr. American Indian Law (St Paul:West Publishing Co., 1988), 10.

2 Canby, Indian Law, 10-12.

3 For more information, please see my paper entitled, "Impact of French and English rivalries upon the Dawnland peoples."

4 Sylvie Bausseron. "Passamaquoddy Indians and their Survival as a Distinct Community" (Diss., Universite de Metz, 1991), 35-36.

5 Canby, Indian Law, 13-16.

6 Bausseron, "Passamaquoddy Indians", 37-38.

7 Bausseron, "Passamaquoddy Indians", 43.

8 Bausseron, "Passamaquoddy Indians", 38.

9 American Friends Service Committee. The Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes (Bath: Maine Indian Program, 1989), A-21.

10 Wabanakis, A-22.

11 Canby, Indian Law, 17-18.

12 Bausseron, "Passamaquoddy Indians", 43-44.

13 Canby, Indian Law, 20-22.

14 Colin G. Calloway. The Abenaki (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989), 83.

15 Bausseron, "Passamaquoddy Indians", 38-39.

16 Calloway, Abenaki, 83.

17 Calloway, Abenaki, 84.

18 Canby, Indian Law, 23.

19 Canby, Indian Law, 25-26.

20 Wabanakis, A-27.

21 Bausseron, "Passamaquoddy Indians", 45-46.

22 Bausseron, "Passamaqouddy Indians", 47-48.

23 Bausseron, "Passamaquoddy Indians", 53-54.

24 Susan Stevens. Passamaquoddy Economic Development in Cultural and Historical Perspective (ERIC 1973. ED 149 939), 60-61.

25 Canby, Indian Law, 29-31.

26 Stevens, Economic Development, 62.

27 Bausseron, "Passamaquoddy Indians", 56-62.

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Reading List

American Friends Service Committee. The Wabanakis of Maine and the aritimes. Bath: Maine Indian Program, 1989.

Bausseron, Sylvie. "Passamaquoddy Indians and their Survival as a Distinct Community." Diss., Universite de Metz, 1991.

Calloway, Colin G. The Abenaki. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Canby, William C. Jr. American Indian Law. St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1988.

Stevens, Susan. Passamaquoddy Economic Development in Cultural and Historical Perspective. ERIC 1973. ED 149 939.

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