Indian country leaders reacted swiftly to the latest outbreak of “the language of savagery”—racist and offensive remarks made by prominent people. This time it occurred in Maine.
Philip Congdon, Maine’s commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, resigned suddenly on April 27 after allegations surfaced that he made offensive and racist statements at a Chamber of Commerce awards banquet in Caribou in Aroostook County, Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) reported. He blamed problems among youth on “bad parents,” education and economic declines on educating African-Americans, and said those who want economic opportunities should “get off the reservation.”
Congdon’s comments follow a year’s worth of racially offensive remarks that began last summer when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg advised the former state governor to “get a cowboy hat and a shotgun” to resolve the issue of having sovereign Indian governments collect New York’s sales taxes on cigarettes. The most recent eruption occurred on Fox News when John Stossel said the federal government had helped American Indians more than anyone else and questioned why the BIA exists since “there is no Bureau of Puerto Rican Affairs or Black Affairs or Irish Affairs.” It highlights the need to educate the mainstream, said Brian Patterson, the president of United South and Eastern Tribes and a citizen of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.
“It’s important to address this issue every time it happens. You need to call these people to task,” Patterson said. “You just can’t go around slandering the First Peoples of this country. Our blood is represented in the red of the American flag. We’ve been the greatest patriots of this country. We’ve held up our part of the bargain, in treaties and commitments to this country. We don’t need to get engaged in the statistics this gentleman alluded to in his intolerable comments about people who have suffered multiple generations of poverty and depredations and lived on the fringes of society, but to engage in meaningful dialogue that would help fulfill this country’s obligation to its First Citizens.”
Members of the Aroostook County business community expected Congdon to talk about economic development in the state and their region of northern Maine, an economically depressed area, MPBN reported. Instead, Congdon said that the country’s economic problems have their roots in the civil rights movement and that higher education has been going downhill ever since blacks were allowed access to American universities and colleges under the affirmative action program. Then he told those in the audience that they could forget about waiting for economic development opportunities to come to Aroostook County, and that if they wanted economic development they needed to “get off the reservation and make it happen,” the report said. He also attributed problems with Aroostoock County young people to having “bad parents.”
“Usually people are a bit more subtle than that,” said Kirk Francis, the chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation. “You have four federally recognized tribes in Maine to whom these comments are extremely insensitive at best and the civil rights affirmative action comments are much more than that. I won’t use the word, but it is what it is.”
Kitchki Carroll, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes and a citizen of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, had no hesitation in using “the word.” “In a nation that promotes diversity as both its foundation and its greatest strength, I am disheartened and outraged by the racism, prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination that still prevails in America today,” Carroll said. “While many may wish to believe that this form of hate no longer exists, or worse yet turn a blind eye upon, examples such as this remind us that it is still present in profound ways. The perpetuation of such ignorance and hate is the reason we have failed to achieve true justice and equality for all as a nation.”
State Rep. John Martin, a Democrat, was so offended by Congdon’s remarks that he was prompted to write a letter to Maine Gov. Paul Lepage expressing strong concerns about his choice to lead the state’s economic development efforts, according to the Bangor Daily News (BDN).
“They were racist and putting people down in Aroostook, basically,” said Martin, who estimated he heard up to a dozen complaints about Congdon’s remarks, the BDN report said.
LePage, himself no stranger to controversy over racial language and other issues, treated Congdon’s resignation as “a personnel matter” and defended his administration’s vetting of Congdon prior to his appointment as a cabinet member. Asked if Congdon was adequately screened, LePage said, “Absolutely. He was vetted. Believe me, he was vetted,” the BDN reported. LePage told the BDN that Congdon had not made those remarks during the vetting process.
Francis said that more is needed from the governor. “I’m assuming this guy’s resignation is a direct result of the administration’s reaction to his remarks, and the governor ought to be commended for that. However I think it’s important for the governor to stand up and say that’s not what this state stands for. It’s much more than a personnel matter and I find it disgusting. (Congdon) is the governor’s voice on economic development, an issue that’s the number one priority in this state. This is just not acceptable.”
Congdon’s comments tying the country and state’s economic problems to civil rights and African Americans’ acquiring education through access to universities and colleges are “absurd,” Francis said. “So you blame the parents living in poverty and all that entails for problems among youth, you blame people of color for declines in education and job growth, and you tell Indians to assimilate with the people who are important enough to get any opportunities.”
The Congdon mind-set is an attempt to continue to marginalize Indians and justify the conditions they live in, Francis said. “You’re going to tell us to get off the reservation now when you went to such great lengths to put tribes there and created the conditions that now exist, so it’s our fault for living in them?”
Francis said it’s easy for politicians to take shots at American Indians because there’s no political downside to doing so. “There are some voices here and there who speak out, but mostly there’s no accountability—look what happened in New York with Bloomberg’s comments, life went on. There are no consequences and it’s just extremely frustrating.”
Carroll said that everyone should stand up against hate-mongering. “It is time for America to respect its First People in a manner that honors the unique history and relationship between our nations and people. We are all relatives before the Creator and individuals who promote hate must no longer be tolerated and accepted.”
Congdon could not be reached for comment.