Can new tribal-community alliance reduce poverty in Maine’s poorest county? Can new tribal-community alliance reduce poverty in Maine’s poorest county?

Passamaquoddy tribe-Washington County team takes on poverty, history in Boston Fed initiative Passamaquoddy tribe-Washington County team takes on poverty, history in Boston Fed initiative

April 5, 2023

Washington County is located as far east as Maine goes, its rough coastline meeting Canada’s alongside the frigid waters of the Bay of Fundy.

The county is historic, the home for centuries of the Passamaquoddy tribe and a destination of the earliest European settlers. It is close-knit, built on the continuing legacy of heritage industries such as fishing and logging. It is also poor.

“It bounces back and forth between the poorest and second poorest county in the state of Maine,” said Matt Dana, a member of the Passamaquoddy.

Currently, Washington County has the unwanted top spot, with more than 18% of residents living in poverty. And Dana is leading a Working Communities Challenge team that hopes to help change that.

The WCC is a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston-supported initiative that relies on collaborative local leadership to take on chronic issues. (Other Maine teams, for example, are addressing youth hopelessness and better access to good jobs.) Poverty has been a longtime issue in Washington County, and the WCC team is building off the successes of a local collaborative called Family Futures Downeast, which works to increase educational and work opportunities for parents with young children.

But more progress fighting poverty is badly needed, said Charles Rudelitch, executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Council, the “backbone” community development agency supporting WCC efforts.

And Rudelitch said he’s hopeful about the WCC team’s efforts because tribal members, including Dana and others, are leading it. The Passamaquoddy have never led a community development partnership with nontribal residents, and Rudelitch sees tremendous potential in the collaboration.

“Any attempt to fix the problems in one community while ignoring the other is doomed to failure and isn't reality-based,“ he said. “My hope is that forming this sort of partnership of equals early in the process will lead to different approaches that may be more effective than what we've tried in the past.”

History reveals often contentious co-existence

Washington County is one of Maine’s least-populous counties, with just 31,000 residents in an area twice the size of Rhode Island. The Passamaquoddy have two reservations in Washington County, one on the coast and the other about 40 miles inland. Dana estimates the tribal population at 3,800, with 2,200 on the reservations.

The lands of the tribe, one of several in the Wabanaki nation, once covered 3 million acres extending into Canada, according to a tribal history. But by the early 19th century, Passamaquoddy holdings had fallen to about 23,000 acres amid broken promises, neglect, and bad-faith dealings by federal and local governments.

In 1975, the Passamaquoddy and another Wabanaki tribe, the Penobscot, sued to get their land back, collectively claiming almost two-thirds of the state of Maine and unnerving nontribal residents. A $81.5 million settlement was signed by President Carter in 1980, but debate about it continues and there are ongoing efforts to modify it. Rudelitch said it all impacts how Washington County residents view the tribe.

“It is not universal, but there's a sense of the tribe as an entity with resources, and access to resources, that nontribal communities just don't have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Passamaquoddy say they are often treated with undisguised prejudice. In a blatant example, WCC team member Liz Neptune recalled her children were only allowed to practice with local youth sports teams, not play in games. And Dana, Rudelitch, and Neptune said local employers seem to rarely hire tribal members, even when they need workers. Dana said that as a result, the Passamaquoddy unemployment rate hits 60% during the tourism offseason.

Team works to improve cultural competency and job prospects

Peter Nalli, who leads the Boston Fed’s WCC programs in Maine, said the key goals of the Washington-County-Passamaquoddy tribe initiative reflect its desire to significantly expand anti-poverty efforts and not only include the tribe, but put it out front.

Already, Neptune has hosted a “cultural competency” seminar with team partners that emphasized tribal members’ willingness to fill local jobs (members often aren’t eligible for unemployment). It also covered tribal history and customs that can impact work, such as multi-day burial rites.

“I feel like it’s really important for people to understand what makes working with tribes a little bit different, but also understand that historical trauma piece, that racism piece that's real,” she said.

Rudelitch said that at its root, the initiative’s anti-poverty efforts are about enhancing adult earning capacity and assets. That means raising awareness about the importance of a living wage for employees or helping families use government benefits to support their career or small-business goals.

It also involves attracting or strengthening job creators, no easy task in a region with shrunken industry and an aging workforce. But WCC team members say they want to support existing industries – like paper and pulp, tourism, and fishing – while searching for new opportunities, perhaps in the region’s natural resources and beauty.

The effort is in its initial stages, and Rudelitch is frank about the “pessimism that always has to be overcome” about community development in Washington County. But Dana said the partnership between the tribe and county is starting strong.

“We want to make it better for everybody,” he said. “Not just Washington County, not just the Passamaquoddy tribe, but both.”

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