Down East 2013 ©
By Cynthia Anderson
Photo: Bangor Daily News
There was controversy in the council chamber. Kirk Francis can’t remember the issue, but he clearly recalls the heat of the room and a sense that he was being criticized. Not that he was a stranger to Penobscot tribal polemics. He’d been elected to the council seventeen years earlier and knew that “people here are passionate.” Since then he had managed two businesses and worked several years in Connecticut. Now he was back home on Indian Island.
And he was chief. He’d campaigned on an open-door policy, which meant the sofa outside his office often held waiting constituents; he was putting in ten-hour days to push his economic development agenda; and he was sitting at the head of the table at Tuesday council meetings. Now, inside the council chamber, the temperature was rising. Francis was thirty-seven, but among the elders he sometimes felt like the boy he’d been, growing up on the island under their watch. In that moment, as debate swirled, he understood in real-time that being chief did not make him unassailable.
“As much as I might have wished otherwise, I realized I was not immune to being challenged,” he says. “Just because I said it didn’t mean everyone was going to accept it. From time to time the elders were going to tell me how to do things.”
That was six years ago. In Francis’ seventh year as chief, the elders still occasionally tell him how to do things, but he’s grown surefooted in his leadership of the Penobscot Nation. Like any head of state, he oversees matters of commerce, security, and the environment, traveling frequently to Augusta and Washington, D.C. In addition to the macro-focus, Francis maintains a micro one — lunching with seniors, stopping in at workplaces. When he greets occupants of that sofa, it’s likely he knows them already.
“His effectiveness stems from a deep understanding of our community,” says Jerry Pardilla, who served as Penobscot chief from 1992 to 1994. “He comprehends what it means to protect our distinct nation status. He has the ability to think and act strategically.”
Francis’ agenda emphasizes economic growth. He comes across as chief-slash-CEO, a man less likely to be engaged in tribal ceremony than in poring over an annual report. Since he was elected, unemployment on Indian Island has halved, and commerce has surged. The fraction of the general fund derived from tribal business proceeds has climbed from 7 percent to 60 percent. During weekdays, the nearby premises of Penobscot Indian Nation Enterprises (PINE) — an umbrella of forestry, alternative energy, construction, bingo, and military contracting businesses — buzz with activity. There’s been a concurrent governmental belt-tightening. The budget has run a surplus since 2008, while debt has dropped from $2 million to $200,000.
All this is auspiciously timed because the population of Indian Island continues to swell. “We do have a lot of people coming back,” Francis says. “The challenge is making sure they have jobs and housing, something real to come back to.”
On a recent morning, Francis was up at 6 a.m. making coffee in the Passadumkeag home where he lives with his wife and two daughters. It was his turn to drive the girls, ages six years and seventeen months, to school, so he bundled them into his GMC Terrain and headed out. They traveled together down Route 2 to Milford, where Isabel attends kindergarten; then Francis and baby Ava continued to Old Town, where he dropped her at daycare before crossing the bridge over the Penobscot River onto Indian Island.
He was in the office by 7:30, sifting through the 350 emails that had accrued in two days and writing a follow-up to a council meeting. There were calls back and forth with the police chief about a burglary that had occurred the night before; Francis needed to be prepared when, inevitably, the accused man’s family showed up at his door. At 9:30 the tribe’s representative to the state legislature called to let Francis know about pending bills that could impede a PINE-initiated windmill project. He spent an hour drafting a two-page response to be presented on the House floor. After that, he took a briefing call from the tribe’s legal counsel updating him on a lawsuit against the state over fishing rights, and then, by 11, it was back to email — but not before another read-through of his response to the windmill bills, to make sure he’d gotten it right.
In many ways, Francis seems a born politician: affable, genuine, committed. He’s laid-back yet direct, with mild blue eyes that can blaze with intensity when he’s making a point. In Indian Country, he’s viewed as a hard worker who is unafraid to speak out. “Chief Francis doesn’t shy away from being heard, and he’ll get down in the trenches and do whatever it takes to make something happen,” says Wanda Janes, deputy director of the United South and Eastern Tribes. “He’s an extremely strong advocate for his people.”
Not everyone agrees with Francis’ pro-commerce agenda, particularly those who supported former chief Barry Dana, who ran against Francis in the most recent election and is a strong proponent of cultural preservation. “[Francis] is at the top of all the chiefs we’ve had in terms of economic development,” says John Neptune, a council member as well as chairperson of both the fish and game and the land committees. “But there’s a fine balance between economic development and our traditions. Often the two don’t fall in line.”
Francis, Neptune says, comes from a family of entrepreneurs — indeed, his father is CEO of PINE — which is not necessarily all positive in a culture that, over millennia, has not emphasized material gain. Neptune cited the windmill project as an example of the compromise that can accompany commerce: Studies suggest a negative impact on wildlife, he says, and adherence to state permitting regulations could jeopardize tribal sovereignty. “You have to ask, if we strip away money, what do we have left? If the focus is too much on financial gain, the answer is, not much.”
Francis maintains that Penobscot culture matters hugely to him, that tribal values form his core, yet he unapologetically argues that culture alone is insufficient. “We have to survive in modern Maine,” he says. “An economic focus may not have been our way, and it still may not be our way, but it’s a reality we have to adjust to.” In the 1960s and 70s, Penobscot culture abounded, he says — but so too did substance abuse and substandard living conditions.
The interior of Francis’ office suggests an intersection of politics and culture. Stacks of files vie for space alongside war clubs and paddles. Ceremonial regalia — a red tunic and velvet collar, a headdress made from eagle feathers — are arranged behind his desk. The Penobscot flag and a copy of the 1755 Massachusetts Bay Colony Proclamation offering a forty-pound bounty for the scalp of every adult male Penobscot hang on the walls alongside family photographs and those of former chiefs, along with one of Francis with President Obama. There’s also a note from the President thanking Francis for the gift of a hand-woven basket.
A large photo of Francis’ grandmother at age thirteen dominates the wall behind his desk. She was the family matriarch, he says, adding that he believes the time for a female chief is near. “We’re getting there, sooner rather than later, and that’s appropriate.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “As long as whoever it is doesn’t run against me.”
Francis’ childhood contained a mingling of influences, as does his life now. He was born to a Penobscot father and French-Canadian mother and grew up on the island, riding his bike, fishing, occasionally participating in drumming and dance in local pageants. He also competed in hockey and cross-country running. Friends remember him as gregarious. “Kirk was a people person who got along with everyone. Even then, he always found the middle ground,” says former neighbor Chris Sockalexis. After graduating from Old Town High School, Francis spent a post-graduate year at Bridgton Academy, then two years at the University of Southern Maine studying business administration. At twenty-one, when he ran for tribal council, he was emulating his father, a businessman who was active in Penobscot politics. “I aspired to be him,” Francis says.
At forty-four, Francis still plays softball, and there’s evidence of a lingering athleticism in the way he moves. He loves to fish and hunt — he got a nine-point buck and a moose last fall — and also to read. His last book was Pagans in the Promised Land, and he recently re-read The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, published in 1893, which explains everything from “why the woodpecker’s head is red to how the oceans became salty.” His three sons from his first marriage were raised Catholic (as was Francis), but he is teaching native spiritualty to his daughters. He’s a registered Democrat who listens to talk radio “because it’s important to hear from all sides,” as well as to rock and roll from the eighties. His favorite recent movie was Lincoln: “Politics was politics, even then.”
As for the Penobscots’ dealings with the government, “It’s the same issues in a different kind of war,” he says. “Instead of arrows and guns, the weapons now are lawsuits and courts.” He tries to avoid “us versus them,” he says, yet the interactions can be frustrating, particularly at the state level. “From a policy standpoint, tribes have been grossly oppressed. I do feel there’s been a concerted effort to control our economic success,” he says, including protracted battles over slot machines. He says he probably would not want the tribe to operate a full-scale casino, “but it’s deplorable how the state has dealt with the issue.”
He makes a consistent distinction between people and policies: “By and large, Americans respect Native American culture, and by and large, American institutions do not.”
For millennia the Penobscot people inhabited the Penobscot River watershed. Together with the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Micmac, they formed the Wabanaki Confederacy, which extended throughout what is now Maine and parts of Canada. When European settlers arrived in the sixteenth century, about ten thousand Penobscots lived in the region, using the waterways to fish, hunt, trap, and gather food. By 1800, fewer than four hundred remained, the population having been decimated by European-introduced disease and, to a lesser extent, by warfare with other tribes and with the English.
Subsequent treaties made between the Wabanaki and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were reneged on or illegal (thus forming the basis for the 1980 Indian land claims settlement). Dams and industrial pollution despoiled the territory that remained in tribal possession, threatening the Penobscots’ traditional way of life. In an effort to sustain themselves, people turned to crafts-making, but that livelihood was meager, and many Penobscots fell into cycles of poverty that still persist.
Today, Penobscot Nation officially comprises some 220 islands in the Penobscot River plus 114,000 acres in trust and fee land throughout the state. Only the four-square-mile Indian Island is significantly inhabited, with a mix of old and newer homes that fan out over low hills. About a third of the tribe’s 2,400 members live here. The domestic heart of the island lies along the river on Wabanaki Way, where the school, health, public safety, PINE, and community facilities are clustered.
On a recent afternoon, the sounds of children’s voices as they exited school drowned out the clatter from inside PINE. The schoolyard is abundantly posted with signs designating it a drug- and smoke-free zone. In recent years the tribe has adopted strict public safety policies. In addition to zero tolerance for illegal substances on school grounds (and heavy penalties for infractions), non-member residential requirements exclude anyone with a drug-dealing or domestic-assault conviction from living on Indian Island. The approach seems to be working, particularly as far as alcohol is concerned. “We don’t have such a bright history with regards to alcoholism, but alcohol abuse is among the least of our problems now,” Francis says.
There has been progress in other areas, too. Although Indian Island is still downstream from several mills, the river is cleaner than it’s been in decades — the musty, chemical-tinged odor it carried all but gone, the water swimmable. The Penobscot River Restoration Project, of which the tribe is part, is overseeing the removal and retrofitting of hydroelectric dams to help restore ancient fish runs.
At the national level, Francis is seen as a key factor in recent advancements. Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, describes him as “extremely capable” in his governance. “Chief Francis is leading his tribe in the right direction,” Holden says. “All of Indian Country benefits from his knowledge and his expertise.”
Issues remain. Last August, the tribe filed suit against the state over fishing rights on waters that surround the reservation, seeking an injunction to keep Maine game wardens from policing the river. Prescription drug abuse is an issue as well, as are health problems such as diabetes and hypertension. A recent Wabanaki survey correlated health and lifestyle compromise with poverty, and Francis says centuries of social and economic marginalization continue to take a toll. His involvement in the state Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which focuses on coming to terms with the decades-long practice of removing Indian children from their homes, is an attempt to help address what happened. “People think, those things happened a long time ago, so why are we still crying over them? But the effects are with us still. The trauma and attacks on Indian culture ruined generations of families.”
Francis believes his emphasis on enterprise is another part of the healing. “Economic self-sufficiency at the family level will translate into tribal self-sufficiency,” he says. Unlike some leaders, he has little interest in promoting tourism — “bird-watchers” are what he calls people who come to Indian Island in hopes of glimpsing what they consider exotic native ways. (The novelty-seeking occurs even in the U.S. Congress, where Francis is sometimes urged to wear his regalia during photo sessions.) Nor is he keen on externally imposed solutions, whether religious, educational, or economic: “Native communities have seen their share of saviors,” he says. It’s clear that while he welcomes collaboration, he’s less interested in interface between Penobscots and mainstream culture than in building the tribe from within.
It’s a big task. Francis oversees two hundred employees in twenty departments while traveling several times a month. The 350 emails in two days were not anomalous. “I grossly underestimated the challenges I’d be dealing with, and the level of intensity,” he says. “Every decision ultimately comes back to you. You lose relationships. You lose friendships.”
Sometimes, in the afternoons when he can get away, Francis goes to Joe Pease Rips, about a half-mile up island from his office. Ledges frame a small sand beach, and sunlight stipples the ground through a mix of conifers and oaks. The river shushes white-tipped over rapids. Sometimes the wind carries the smell of the nearby paper mill, and occasionally a train passes on the other side of the river, but usually it’s quiet, the way it might have been a thousand years ago. Francis has been coming here since he was a boy. It’s his favorite place on the island, a place, he says, that “feels like home.”
Will he run for chief again? “I don’t know,” he says. He’s proud of what he’s accomplished — “enhancing the quality of life here, watching people get jobs, and good jobs, helping to preserve our language and culture” — but he’d like to spend more time with his family, and he wakes every morning mindful of the weightiness of his role.
When he first got elected, he was “stunned at being chief,” he says. At times he still is. “You think about the chiefs before you, people like Joseph Orono and John Attean, and it’s overwhelming that you get to sit in that same position. You think about the legacy they left. You wonder sometimes if in two hundred years the same will be true of you.”
Cynthia Anderson is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer whose work has twice been cited as notable in The Best American Essays.