November 18, 2019

Casino rejection rocks Down East> Pleasant Point reacts mostly with regret

PLEASANT POINT — “I laughed for 10 minutes,” Brian Altvater Sr. said Friday of his response to hearing the Legislature had defeated a bill that would have brought a $40 million Passamaquoddy casino to Calais. “I was ecstatic.”

Altvater said the casino, as proposed, primarily would have benefited the state, not the Passamaquoddy reservations. “We’d have gotten whatever was left over after everybody else got their share,” he said. “I didn’t see this as Indian self-determination at all.”

Altvater, who volunteered his remarks while registering a car at the newly opened Passamaquoddy Tribal Government building here, didn’t speak for many other tribal members on the day after lawmakers in Augusta trounced the gambling measure.

The prevailing mood on Pleasant Point, the Passamaquoddy reservation near Eastport, was one of loss, but not resignation.

Benefits gained from the casino would have been spilt “50-50” between the Passamaquoddy reservations at Pleasant Point, with 1,827 residents, and Peter Dana Point in Indian Township, with 1,025 residents. Indian leaders have said they may challenge the decision in federal court.

Marla Dewitt, who spent two days in Augusta, only to watch the bill crushed, was direct in her assessment of what will happen if the Legislature’s action is tested in court. “The state had their chance,” Dewitt said. “Now we’ll kick their butt.”

Another woman said, “The state lost its chance to control it. It should go on tribal land, anyway. That way Indians, not the state, will have the say on how it’s run.”

“The Legislature started by saying they wanted to help economically depressed Washington County,” Tribal Lt. Gov. Fred Francis said. “Then they come back and say, `But this is not the way we want to do it.’ How could somebody shoot down 700 permanent jobs and many more part-time jobs?”

Many tribal members said the bill was defeated by geography, with legislators from the more populous and politically powerful southern part of the state burying the vote of more rural, politically weaker, northern Maine. One woman called it “another geographic slap in the face for Washington County. If this had been proposed for Portland,” the woman said. “it would have gone.” In fact, an analysis of House votes shows many yes votes from southern Maine, and some no votes from Washington County representatives.

Daryl Bridges, a tribal planner at the Pleasant Point reservation, maintains the bill was defeated on ethnic as well as geographic grounds. Bridges believes lawmakers were “nervous” about tribal involvement in the casino. “Had it been proposed by anybody else, I think it would have gone,” Bridges said.

Dewitt agreed, saying she was brushed aside repeatedly by lawmakers while in Augusta.

“They’d look at me — I obviously look Indian — and they wouldn’t talk to me,” Dewitt said. “But they’d talk to someone who wasn’t Indian. It was terrible.”

One person who openly opposed the casino but disagreed with the way it was defeated, was Valerie Emery.

“If it had been defeated on reasonable grounds, I wouldn’t mind,” said Emery. “The sense throughout the whole thing is that it was defeated because it would have been a Native American casino. (The legislators) are a sad bunch of people. We’re Natives, but we’re citizens of Maine, too.”

Emery said she opposed the casino out of fear that many tribal youth would have quit college or trade schools to work in the casino.

Without exception, tribal members interviewed Friday expressed shock at the nearly 2-to-1 defeat of the casino gambling bill. Although there was division among members on which way they thought the final vote would go, all thought the margin would be closer.

“Things happen for a reason,” Lt. Gov. Francis said. “This is nothing we were depending on for our survival.”

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