Supporting Tribal Community Development Loan Funds

One of the moral dilemmas facing many Friends and others in our relations with Native American tribes is how we reconcile our qualms about supporting Native gaming with our desire to provide general and economic support. I want to report on one successful effort at addressing this dilemma in the State of Maine.

In 2003 the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes proposed a major gambling casino in southern Maine. But due to restrictions in a 1984 Land Claims Settlement between the tribes and the State of Maine, the Maine tribes were excluded from the Tribal Gaming Act that allows many tribes to open casinos through federal law. The Maine tribes, in contrast, had to seek approval of the casino through a state ballot referendum that was held during the 2003 November elections.

I was the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches (MCC) at that time, and when I asked the MCC Board if they wished to take a stand on the referendum we were faced with the classic anti-gaming/support-the-tribes dilemma.

Our initial response was to conclude that, given our past opposition to gambling initiatives, and the strong opposition to gaming among most of our denominations, we should simply oppose the casino referendum, and we initially voted to do so. However, a couple of board members felt that out of respect to the tribes and their sovereign right to appeal for a casino, and if we were ever to have any level of trust in an ongoing relationship with them, we needed to hear their side of the story. I was asked, with a member of the MCC Board, to meet with representatives of the tribes to explain our position.

A meeting was arranged, we thought, with a couple of members of the tribal leadership in the state. But when we arrived we were faced with 20 or so people who were the steering committee of the casino campaign. And things got worse! We were there to explain to them why we had voted to oppose the casino; they were there assuming they were being consulted in preparation of a vote and they began the meeting with several people speaking at length about the economic and cultural importance of the casino and their past negative experiences with the religious community. They especially reminded us that the Catholic Church had introduced bingo into the tribe as a way of supporting the church! Due to poor communication, we were thus in a position of having to admit that not only had we already taken the vote, but that once again we were guilty of a huge breach of respect for the needs and choices of Native American people and, worse, realized we were patronizing them. It was perhaps the lowest point in my 20 years as executive director of the MCC. The meeting represented all that is wrong with a condescending attitude that ignores value conflicts between "liberal supporters" and Native Americans.

As a result of that meeting the MCC Board was asked to reconsider their decision, and a representative of the Penobscot tribe—their representative to our state legislature—was asked to address the Board regarding the matter. She gave us a stunning history lesson. We learned in considerable detail of the past mistreatment by the white settlers, of tribal poverty, racism, and social and economic exclusion, right up to the present. And we heard of the hopes for economic development and thus the strengthening of cultural identity and pride that the casino movement had afforded many other tribes and was to be expected when a casino was established in Maine.

Because this was such a difficult issue for us, a special board meeting was called in addition to our regular meeting, as we needed considerable time to discuss the matter and to take into account the request that we at least remain neutral on the referendum. We truly struggled deeply with the issue as some members were not willing to easily set aside their opposition to gaming and its corruption of family, person and spirit; others were equally moved by the injustice and discrimination against the Maine tribes for which the casino offered some level of restitution and hope.

After considerable debate we finally concluded that we would continue to oppose the referendum, but we also made a covenant among ourselves that we would offer some alternative form of economic development, although we did not know what form that might take. So we moved forward with strong misgivings about the very real possibility that we would yet again betray our commitments to the tribes if the casino were defeated and we actually needed to make good on our commitment. In addition we committed to using time at the beginning of each board meeting for the rest of the year as a time to reflect on Native American history and to worship in light of our racism and attitudes about our tribal relations.

The casino, in fact, was defeated. The tribes were devastated and angry. And now we needed to come up with an offer that would most likely be very difficult for the tribes to accept.

A tremendous break appeared, however, when I learned that there was indeed a new economic development program among the tribes where we might be helpful and they might be willing to accept our support. The Four Directions Development Corporation (FDDC) had been initiated by the Penobscots in 2001 and had been expanded to include the other three Maine tribes. The FDDC had established as a Community Development Loan Fund with the purpose of providing capital to support affordable tribal low-income housing and small business development projects. They had received a federal matching grant of $1,145,000, and they were looking for ways to raise the matching money. Would we be willing to join them in this effort?

After preliminary meetings with the director of the FDDC, Susan Hammond, and their board president and staff members, and with the support of the MCC Board, we agreed to launch a fundraising program called the Giving Winds Campaign. A steering committee, consisting of both Native and non-Native members, was formed, a part-time campaign coordinator was hired, and we began a three-year process of developing the infrastructure (brochures and other interpretive materials and the institutional capacity to receive and track contributions and loans, for example) and to develop a level of trust on both sides that would make the project work.

We appealed to the denominations, churches, and a few individuals initially through presentations at denominational conferences. We held regional gatherings that included cultural interpretations (drumming, art work, and smudging ceremonies) and testimonials on how the loans already in place had made a difference in peoples’ lives. We invited two groups of representatives from the various parts of the state to visit the Penobscot reservation. We received a generous initial personal loan from a family trust of $50,000 that gave us a good start, and we targeted various foundations and groups that had opposed the referendum to join us in our alternative economic development efforts. And over the months, although we had some initial disappointments, our capacity and success grew. And perhaps as important as the money raised, we built up, layer by layer, an increasing amount of comfort and trust between tribal membership and our supporters.

In November of 2006 we held a celebration event for the Giving Winds campaign. Including the matching federal dollars (the amount of which was expanded), we raised a total of $1,460,050, which included $600,800 in low-interest loans, $54,225 in outright gifts, $75,000 from foundations, and $730,025 in federal match funds. The impact of the loans made thus far has been significant. It means that residents on the reservations who previously were unable to get loans (the reserva-tion land is owned by the tribe, which precluded banks from securing the loans) are now able to improve their property and thus raise the value of their homes and create small business opportunities.

We count this effort at economic partnership and trust-building a remarkable success, and we recommend that other groups consider a similar approach in conjunction with their local tribes.

Tom Ewell

Tom Ewell is a member of Portland (Oreg.) Meeting. He was Executive Director of the Maine Council of Churches from 1986-2006. He now lives in Clinton, Washington, where he works at what he calls "strategic peace building." For more information about the Four Directions Development Corporation, you may contact Susan Hammond, Executive Director, 20 Godfrey Dr., Orono, ME 04477 or, or contact the author at