By Rebecca Scarborough
On November 18, Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in Rockland hosted the online conversation “Indigenous Issues in Northern Maine” as part of the synagogue’s monthly Tzedek (“justice” in Hebrew) Series on social justice issues. Richard Silliboy, Vice Chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, shared his personal story, some of the history of the Micmacs and other Indigenous tribes in Maine, and his experience as a legislative advocate and representative of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. Silliboy is a tribal elder and a master basket maker. The Aroostook Band of Micmacs is based in Presque Isle.
Silliboy is the youngest of 11 children and the only surviving member of his mother’s family. His mother frequently moved between Canada and Maine, but stayed in Maine when his sister was born in 1943. Silliboy noted that his mother was aware of the residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada and was able to keep her children out of them.
He recalled that he began to learn basketmaking at the age of five or six by helping his brothers. It was “learn[ing] by participation,” he said. His mother would start baskets that he would finish himself. The family, however, struggled with alcohol. “I hate alcohol,” Silliboy said. One day when he was 13, he was working on a basket while his family was drinking. After being scolded by a brother for not weaving the basket correctly, Silliboy told the brother to fix the basket himself and walked out of the house. He went to live with a sibling and did not return.
For a number of years, Silliboy stopped basketmaking, but in the mid-1980s he started again after realizing that most basketmakers were over 50 years old; he worried that basketmaking would be a “dying art.”
The Micmac tribe was not part of the negotiations between the federal government, Maine’s state government, and the other Indigenous tribes that led to the Maine Settlement Act in 1980. That was because the tribe was spread out and not in one location like other Maine tribes, Silliboy explained. He noted that because the Micmacs were not involved with the negotiations, they do not have any formal legal agreement with the state but are still considered bound by the Maine Settlement Act.
In the 1980s, the Micmacs began to seek federal recognition as a tribe, and Silliboy served as a tribal representative. He met with legislators in Maine and Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal recognition. After a very slow process, and with help from Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the Micmacs finally became a federally recognized tribe in 1991.
Silliboy has been on the Tribal Council several times since the early 1990s and has served as vice chief the past six years. He has testified in Augusta about a dozen times and has taken delegations to Washington, D.C., to meet with staff from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
While the Micmac tribe is recognized by the federal government, Silliboy noted “the State of Maine doesn’t want to work with us.” He recalled that former Governor Paul Le Page refused to speak with him or his tribe, and that Governor Janet Mills has not taken action to support the tribe. He mentioned a bill in the upcoming state legislature, LD 1626, which would give Maine tribes the same rights and benefits as other federally recognized tribes.
Currently, he said, the Micmacs are the poorest Maine tribe because most of his tribe’s money comes from government grants, grants from other organizations, a trout and fish farm, and other farms run during summer and fall. Silliboy also explained that Maine’s ash trees used for basketmaking are threatened by tree-damaging insects called emerald ash borers.
A question-and-answer session followed Silliboy’s remarks at the forum. When asked what three things he would want all attendees to know, he said that to him the most important issue was jurisdiction because the State of Maine claims that the Micmac tribe “can’t do anything on our tribal land,” including hunting and fishing.
Another attendee asked what he would like people to know about the history of Thanksgiving. He said the early settlers would not have survived the winter without help from the Indigenous people, and the “first food bank” in the United States was founded on the island of St. Croix (located between present-day Canada and Maine) by Indigenous people to help French settlers survive the winter of 1604.