Donald Gellers died of cancer at the age of 78 in 2014. During his lifetime, he never asked for a pardon. But in October, Gellers’ attorney, relatives and members of the Passamaquoddy tribe appeared on his behalf to ask the governor’s pardon board to grant him one and to end what has been described by journalist Colin Woodard as “one of the most sordid episodes in Maine legal history.” Woodard has written extensively about the case for the Maine Sunday Telegram.
For centuries, the Passamaquoddy people of Maine have faced a violation of their inherent rights as Indigenous Peoples. They have been repeatedly displaced from their original lands by European settlers since the 16th century, eventually limited to their current reservation in eastern Washington County, Maine. Now their fishing rights —an intrinsic part of Passamaquoddy culture and sustenance —are threatened, under the ironic pretext of equal protection for state fishermen. At issue are two pieces of legislation, both in conflict with the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the Maine Implementing Act. The Passamaquoddy refused to comply with LD-451, a law that limited the tribe to issuing just 200 elver licenses in 2013, and this year’s LD-1625, which requires state fishery officials to approve each individual tribal elver license in writing. The tribe has been in discussion with the state since January on ways the Passamaquoddy can maintain its cultural identity throughout the fishing season “because our fishery is based on culture, conservation, and preservation of the eel,” says Passamaquoddy Tribal Councilman Newell Lewey.
In Maine, an unusual and historic process is under way to document child welfare practices that once resulted in Indian children being forcibly removed from their homes. Many of the native children were placed with white foster parents. Chiefs from all five of Maine’s tribes, along with Gov. Paul LePage, have created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help heal the wounds.