Indian Tribe Pins Its Poverty-Fighting Hopes on Maple Syrup

Tribal Syrup
Robert F. Bukaty, APLeah Moffitt pounds a tap into a maple tree on land owned by the Passamaquoddy tribe near Jackman, Maine. The tribe plans to expand its syrup operations with the goal of bringing hope and stability to a tribe with soaring joblessness and poverty.
By DAVID SHARP

PRENTISS TOWNSHIP, Maine -- The members of the Passamaquoddy tribe have looked under their feet for a bottled water plant and have turned to the sky for a wind farm. But it's the forest that will be the first to deliver as the impoverished tribe seeks to become one of the biggest maple syrup operations in Maine.

The tribe, which owns 60,000 acres of land near the Canadian border in western Maine, has big plans for the syrup operation deep in the woods. Operating this season with nearly 3,000 taps, the tribe plans to expand over the next three years to 60,000.

The goal isn't to create a maple syrup empire, but rather to bring hope and stability to a tribe with soaring joblessness and poverty, said Indian Township Chief Joseph Socobasin.

"It creates an opportunity that we've never had," Socobasin said of the operation, one of several economic development projects underway for a tribe with unemployment topping 60 percent.

The project falls in line with a tribal movement nationwide to get beyond casinos and federal dollars to create self-sustaining operations that can create spinoff jobs, said Carl Artman, a Milwaukee-based lawyer who advises tribes on economic development. Across the country, tribes are getting into oil and gas operations and real estate development. In Florida, for instance, the Seminoles own the popular Hard Rock brand.

For the Passamaquoddies, the syrup project is appealing because of tribal roots. Native Americans were making maple syrup long before the first European settlers arrived. It's also attractive because it's a renewable resource and allows tribal members to spend time with nature.

The land is true wilderness, covered in 3 feet of snowpack even in April and teeming with moose, deer and lynx. There's even a bear den among the tapped trees.

"It goes back to our ancestors. Our ancestors did this," said Marie Harnois, who's in charge of the operation. "It will create employment year after year and hopefully make a profit for our tribe."
On a recent day, 5 miles of bright green tubes running from tree to tree stood out against a white backdrop of snowy forest. The tubes collect sap from several thousand maple trees, transporting clear liquid that will eventually be transformed into sweet amber syrup.

It's a modern operation with a generator and pump to keep sap flowing and reverse-osmosis equipment to create concentrated sap, which is certified as organic, Harnois said.

This season, the sap is being boiled down to syrup by a third party. Next year, the tribe will have its own equipment to make and bottle the syrup, she said. The tribe is working on a name for the syrup, which will be distributed globally. Wholesale rates were roughly $35 to $40 a gallon in recent years.

Eventually, the operation will support a dozen jobs. Coupled with its other projects, the tribe hopes the jobs will add up and the operations will contribute revenue to tribal operations.

Larry Libby, one of the crew members, said work is hard to come by back home in Indian Township, and he's happy to have a job.

"I can see this job going a lot further than where we are now," said Libby, 24. "So there's a lot of room for building."

The tribe is also in the final stage of negotiations with investors to build a bottled water plant 200 miles from the syrup operation, and it's reviving plans for a wind power project. The tribe also has a blueberry operation, and it hasn't given up the dream of operating a casino, either.

For the Passamaquoddies, it's all about creating jobs to keep tribal members from having to leave Indian Township and Pleasant Point, the ancestral homeland in eastern Maine where more than 2,000 tribal members live.

For the maple syrup project, the tribe tapped a $1.5 million federal grant to get the operation started. The first of three installments came through in December.

"With all of those pieces coming together, I think we could have a significant impact on the number of people who are unemployed," Socobasin said. "It gives our members some options."

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Getting out of debt

Everyone hates debt. Get out of it.

View Course »

What is Inflation?

Why do prices go up?

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

18 Comments

Filter by:
YourFtr

Story I heard about the Susquehanna Indians.....
A woman about 1924 had a goiter the doctors couldn't do anything about...so she went down to the Indians still camping along the Susquehanna River. She asked if the Shaman or Medicine man could help her.
The Indians said they could help her and killed a large snake; which they opened and wrapped around her kneck for 24 hours.
Afterwards her Goiter had gone down and shrunk,
I Don't believe many of the Susquehanna Indians have survived the modern era........

April 14 2014 at 10:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to YourFtr's comment
Tom Wilson

Well that's a relief to the snakes …..

April 14 2014 at 11:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
thelmalad

i think you derserve it god look

April 14 2014 at 8:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jim

Some good news for a change. I wish them lots of luck.

April 14 2014 at 7:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
celienet

Passamaquoddy Syrup. It's fun to say Passamaquoddy.

April 14 2014 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dumbsomey

Just one more in a countless line of examples of federal spending that are financed by federal income taxes, which over 40% of Americans refuse to contribute one thin dime toward.

What is it about impoverished native Americans that these non-taxpayers hate anyway?

April 14 2014 at 2:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
crimeslawyer

We hear so little about the American indians. It's all about the American Africans. I want to see an American indian in every tv commerical instead of all these Africans.

April 14 2014 at 1:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to crimeslawyer's comment
ernest

Yea, you're right.. and while ur at it, take some of those White European's off as well....

April 14 2014 at 6:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ernest's comment
crimeslawyer

Don't see many Europeans anymore. It is all about the black man and our effort to get rid of his inferiority complex.

April 15 2014 at 1:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down
budmannme

3000 Taps will make about 375 gallons of syrup on an average year and on the wholesale market will bring in about $15,000. 60,000 taps will bring in about $300,000 However with equipment cost, repair/ maintenace, supplies this should bring about 2 people with the several months worth of work from cutting and stacking of wood to the tapping, boiling, and canning minimum wage at best. So nice we could give them 1.5 million for this however the poverty level will not change. Remember poor people have been voting for 50 years and they are still poor

April 14 2014 at 12:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to budmannme's comment
celienet

It takes a lot more than two people to set & maintain 60,000 taps. They will have a processing plant where people will have to work & bottle the product, ship it, etc. They can make other maple products, like candy etc. I'm sure they will be successful. They should start a Christmas Tree Farm, and other things as well. Tours of the res. Letting a few hunters on the property for a price. I wish them luck. America treats its Native People like crap.

April 14 2014 at 3:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ksim1011

I am so impressed with the Passamaquoddy - they really work hard to overcome the poverty that runs rampant through their portion of eastern Maine. Congratulations, keep up the good work! Please come up with a great name for your syrup that makes it easy for us all to know where it comes from, I would be more than happy to buy it!

April 14 2014 at 12:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
seja0553

I have lived in South Dakota where there are several Indian Reservations. They all get money from the government. I came away from there with a completely different view. If they would get off their "*****" and work like most everyone else there would be no problem.

April 14 2014 at 11:54 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to seja0553's comment
ksim1011

The Passamaquoddy live in an area where there is very little industry for them to "get off their *** and work". They are trying to be productive with the businesses that they are currently starting up.

April 14 2014 at 12:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Jay

This is terrific news! Too long have Native Americans been lost in despair. It looks like they have a splendid plan to bring income to the tribe. And, importantly, since Maple Syrup has sweetness as well as a LOW glycemic index factor, it can be enjoyed by diabetics. They should do well.

April 14 2014 at 11:13 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply