April 07, 2020

Tribal members to visit Caracas Penobscots to attend Venezuelan trade fair

INDIAN ISLAND – Five members of the Penobscot Indian Nation will travel to Venezuela this week to represent the indigenous people of the United States at the Caracas International Tourism and Trade Fair.

“I think that it’s an extraordinary compliment to the Penobscot Nation,” Chief James Sappier said Friday.

The five tribal members who will attend the trade fair include Rhonda Frey, the tribe’s personnel director; Barbara Francis, tribal member and master basket maker; Michael Sockalexis, tribal member and state representative; Cheryl Francis, tribal member; and Butch Phillips, tribal elder and traditional birch bark canoe maker.

The sponsor of the fair, the Venezuelan government’s Ministry of Tourism, is “paying for all five people to attend,” said Reese Chavaree-Hildreth of the tribe’s Department of Human Services who has been helping to arrange the trip.

The conference runs from Oct. 4 to 8.

In addition to presenting their basket and canoe making skills, tribal members will demonstrate traditional dances and share aspects of their culture with indigenous tribes from all over the world, including Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and Guatemala.

“It’s just to keep our good relationship going,” Chavaree Hildreth said Friday of the tribe’s interest in attending. “It’s an excellent opportunity for tribal members to go and experience their culture and bring some of ours to them.”

The trade fair is a forum created to promote tourism worldwide as a tool for economic development, social progress, and a better understanding among nations, according to the event’s Web site.

The Penobscots have developed a relationship with the Venezuelan government over the last couple of years, entering an agreement with the government to have Citgo Petroleum Corp., the national petroleum company of Venezuela, sell discounted oil to the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in Maine.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a fierce critic of President Bush and insists the U.S. government has systematically sought ways to overthrow him in order to seize Venezuela’s vast oil reserves. U.S. officials have denied that and accuse the Cuban-allied Chavez of posing a threat to democracies in the region.

Recent negative comments made by Chavez have made Gov. John Baldacci reconsider his administration’s agreement with Venezuela last winter to buy discounted oil to bolster the state’s low-income home energy assistance program.

The governor has said he has no plans to seek a similar deal this winter.

The Penobscots, however, are moving forward with their own oil deal and recently signed an agreement on behalf of all the tribes in the U.S. at a meeting in New York.

“Chavez and the president have been at each other’s throats for a couple of years,” Sappier said, dismissing the latest verbal offensive as more of the same.

In the tribal oil deal, the Penobscots are the lead signatory for all of the tribes in the U.S., but each tribe will have an individual agreement with Citgo that will be entered into this month, the chief said.

“Every time that we’ve done anything with them … they’ve always treated us very, very graciously,” Sappier said. “They’ve been very giving. They treat us like royalty, [and] it’s always a great experience.”

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