HOULTON, Maine – The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians’ community will be busy over the next year.
The nation received $2 million in stimulus funding for housing and another $2 million for a new health center that will bring all its health departments together under one roof and expand services and programs.
In addition, with a change of attitude in the state legislature and chairmanship of the judiciary committee that previously blocked so many Indian initiatives, the Maliseets were successful in passing a long sought amendment to the Maine Implementing Act that authorizes the nation to establish a tribal court and law enforcement department, and a separate bill allowing high stakes bingo.
Construction will begin this fall on the health center and housing project, Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander said.
For Commander, who easily won re-election to her fourth four-year term in July, the projects are a continuation of work she began in previous years.
With an eye for long range planning and organization, Commander has helped develop most of the tribe’s programs and initiatives in health, housing, domestic violence, law enforcement and more over her 12-year tenure. In the past two years alone, the nation received a $1.7 million grant for a jobs program for all of the state’s Wabanaki tribal members with disabilities; created a new elders’ center using tribal revenues; established a Technology Achievement Center; and brought a new shelter for battered women and their children onto the nation’s territory.
The health center has been a dream for years, she said.
“We’ve outgrown our facility and our infrastructure. It’s impossible to take on a new program or new projects so it’s just incredible that we received this funding. Our whole tribe is extremely excited about finally getting all of the health department services in one building.”
The nation provides an array of services including general medical checkups, transportation for appointments, contract services at the local hospital in Houlton, a diabetes program, behavioral health services, substance abuse counseling, a wellness center and more, but they are scattered in different locations.
The new building will pull everything together with room to expand, said Health Director Carol Francis.
“We have several buildings right now, so we’re going to have everything under one roof. That way it’ll be so much easier, for example, for the provider to take a patient to the nutritionist and set up appointments while they’re here. The new building is going to be huge. It will have at least four medical examination rooms. We’re also going to have room for dental services and that will be new.”
Commander said the health department is even considering a room with light treatments for patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder, a common complaint in northern Maine where winter days are short and the light is bleak.
The new facility will provide space for holistic healing and programs that are tribal specific, Francis said.
The $2 million funding package includes $250,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately $1.4 million in stimulus money, and the balance in tax credits.
The tribe had applied last year for HUD funding for the health center, but missed the grant by one point, Commander said. But, having applied for a HUD grant, the project was “shovel ready” – a crucial factor in winning the stimulus funds.
The housing project was also shovel ready, Housing Director Aaron Greenlaw said.
The department will build an eight-unit, three bedroom apartment block “and we’ll be starting just as soon as possible. We’ve already contracted with a firm.”
The nation also received a $1 million low interest loan that will add another 14 units of two-bedroom housing to the tribe’s inventory of 68 rental units.
The nation, which has more than 1,000 citizens, has a waiting list of approximately 45 families. The 22 new housing units “will greatly help our Maliseet families,” Greenlaw said.
In August, the Penobscot Indian Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe signed off on an amendment to the Maine Implementing Act passed by the state legislature that authorizes the Maliseets to establish a tribal court and law enforcement department. Any changes to the MIA require approval by the two Wabanaki tribes. The MIA is the companion to the federal Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act.
“For us, it was a step for sovereignty. We worked hard for this. And I’m so thankful for the support the other tribes have given us. It meant a lot for us that they were there,” Commander said.
She also thanked Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission Chairman Paul Bisulca and Executive Director John Dieffenbacker-Krall for helping shepherd the amendment through the legislature.
“And also what was different this time was the attitude at the State House. It was so positive. It was respectful. They had new chairs on the judiciary committee and they actually took the time out of their busy schedules to come and visit the tribe,” Commander said.
The Maliseets were also “shovel ready” for its new tribal court. The nation contracted with Syracuse University a few years ago and worked with an attorney who helped develop the tribal ordinances.
“We actually have a chief judge on board now,” Commander said.
The tribe also established a police department a few years ago. The MIA amendment does away with a requirement that the tribe and other local and state law enforcement agencies had to provide the legislature with a “report card” on its activities.
The amendment also provides for a reduction or elimination of the tribe’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes to the local municipality if the tribe brings federal funds to the area, such as the $1 million road improvement grant it received last year.
In a separate bill, the Maliseets were authorized to conduct high stakes bingo.
“A few years ago our leadership and I went down to Augusta and met with the governor and said, ‘You know, we’d really like to plan for high stakes bingo,’ and you know what he said? ‘No.’ Can you imagine? He said the Micmacs had asked the week before and we’d have to cooperate with them, and we said, No,’” Commander said.
The new bills go into effect Oct. 1.